THE CROWN COURT IN OXFORD
The Crown Court in Oxford is one of about 92 different Crown Courts in England and Wales and is situated in the Combined Court Centre in St Aldates, where the civil and family courts are also located. The court building used to be the Morris Motor Showrooms and was built in 1932, and the original façade was kept when the building was converted into a court centre in 1985. For many centuries there were no Crown Courts and criminal trials either took place at the Assizes when a judge of the High Court would visit Oxford to try serious cases such as murder or manslaughter or rape, or at the Quarter Sessions when practising barristers would sit as Recorders or Chairmen of Sessions to try less serious cases, such as burglary and assault. The Assizes took place in the County Hall near Oxford Castle, where there is still a plaque commemorating all those who died of “gaol fever” in one particular year, and the Sessions took place in the Town Hall, where the old courtroom still exists and can sometimes be seen in TV dramas.
The old courts used to sit only three or four times a year and eventually proved inadequate to cope with the rising crime rate, so the Courts Act 1971 provided that as from January 1972 they should be abolished and replaced with Crown Courts which would sit throughout the year to deal with those criminal cases which were considered to be too serious to be tried by the local magistrates. The introduction of Crown Courts also meant that judges would have to be appointed to sit permanently to try criminal cases and those judges came to be called Circuit Judges. In Oxford there are either three or four permanent Circuit Judges dealing with the work of the Crown Court, assisted when required by practising barristers or solicitors, who are still called Recorders. High Court Judges still visit Oxford from time to time to try very serious cases, but in recent years Circuit Judges have been given the authority to try murder, manslaughter and serious sexual cases and so there are fewer occasions when it is necessary for a High Court Judge to come to Oxford.
If you visit the Crown Court you will be able to tell the difference between the various types of judge by the robes they wear; the High Court Judges wear a red robe, the Circuit Judges a violet robe with a red tippet (sash), and the Recorders a black gown.
The judges in the Crown Court have three responsibilities. The first is to preside over the trials of those who have pleaded “not guilty”, where the defendant’s guilt or innocence is decided by twelve members of the public who sit as jurors. In those cases the judge conducts the trial, decides any questions of law that arise, and at the end of the trial gives the jury a direction about the law they must apply with a summary of the relevant evidence they have heard. The jury then have to decide whether they are sure the defendant is guilty, in which case they convict; if they are not sure, they must acquit.
The Circuit Judge’s second responsibility is to sentence those defendants who have either pleaded “guilty” or who have been convicted by the jury. Since 1965 judges have not had the power to sentence anyone to death, but when the High Court Judge comes to the Crown Court he traditionally brings with him the “black cap” that used to be worn on such occasions. Otherwise the Circuit Judges have the power to sentence defendants to imprisonment (for life in some cases) or to pass community sentences where the punishment might consist of unpaid work in the community, or being required to undergo drug rehabilitation treatment, or being required to stay inside their homes for long periods of time wearing an electronic tag, or being supervised by a probation officer. If a defendant is sentenced to a term of imprisonment custody officers in the court building will keep him or her in a cell until the end of the court day when the prisoner is transported in a prison van usually to Bullingdon Prison near Bicester to start his sentence or, if female, to Bronzefield Prison, near Ashford in Surrey.
The third responsibility of the Circuit Judges is to hear appeals from the Magistrates Courts in Oxfordshire, but because there are relatively few appeals this work takes up much less time than jury trials and sentencing defendants.
Most men and women who become judges do so after a long career either as barrister or solicitor; some will have been appointed to the rank of Queen’s Counsel at the Bar, but many, indeed most, will not. In the rest of Europe most judges will have had no experience of private practice as lawyers and will start their judicial career in their 20s after going to University and Judicial College, but in England and Wales judges, whether male or female, will generally be appointed to the Bench only in their 40s or 50s. For most it then becomes a full time career but occasionally, and in order to encourage those with children to apply to become judges, part time arrangements are sometime made. Judges in the Oxford Crown Court play a demanding and important role in the criminal justice system in the local community and while they may seem remote to some members of the public because of that role, in fact their experience as lawyers in private practice as well as their daily experience in court gives them a significant insight into the lives of many disadvantaged people, whether they are victims of crime or perpetrators or family members.