Cotswold Voice: The meals of Justice

A jury may sometimes acquit the guilty; on the other hand, it rarely convicts the innocent

A jury may sometimes acquit the guilty; on the other hand, it rarely convicts the innocent - Credit: Archant

Adam Edwards: The legal system may be slow, clumsy and expensive, but it is the hallmark of a civilised society. A Greggs’ cheese and ham bake, on the other hand, is not

After my daughter’s written outburst about her life with this curmudgeon, I return to my column a chastened man. Well, actually, not that chastened. My father, a lawyer, taught me to have strong opinions and change them often and I like to think I have instilled that view in my daughter and so no doubt she will, by now, be taking a more benign view of her old man.

Meanwhile my month’s sabbatical was spent, not as my daughter indicated, raging silently against the machine, but rather cowing under the yoke of the establishment as a juror in Swindon.

Many years ago I covered the trial of Claus Von Bulow, a British socialite accused of attempting to kill his extraordinarily rich American wife, Sonny. Von Bulow’s lawyers argued that their client could not be tried by a jury of his peers in his exclusive hometown of Newport, Rhode Island, because all of his peers were wintering in Palm Beach.

The reverse was true, I felt, when I was called up for jury service in the Wiltshire railway town. I was not sure that my life in the Cotswolds, where a capital offence is forgetting to carry a roll of horse-calming Polo mints, was suited to oversee the brutalities of a municipality whose main boast is a kitsch statue of 50s sex kitten Diana Dors, onto whose prominent nipples chewing gum is regularly applied by the locals.

If there is one opinion common to almost all the peoples of the Cotswolds I have discovered it is the general dislike of Swindon. Cheltenham, for example, is a town that has dramatically improved in almost every way in the last decade and is nowadays grudgingly admired by even the most aggressive local rustic. Cirencester may be ‘small town’ but it is also thought of as pretty and charming, while Oxford is considered sophisticated (although it has too many tourists and is run by anti-parking fascists).

Swindon on the other hand is a malodorous, sprawling red-brick donut; a bland centre ringed by roundabouts and superstores that is not of our hills and yet is near enough to inflict its postcode on some of us.

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Anyway it was to this hollow centre, to the Crown Court, where I was ordered. And it was an education. My fellow jurors were not, as I was told they would be, either skiving civil servants or unemployed ne’er do wells; rather they were a decent representation of middle England – a teacher, an engineer, a shop assistant, a political wonk and so on and so forth. Furthermore they were honest and fair to a fault. I am still not sure if I am allowed to discuss exact details, but basically the prosecution’s case rested on whether or not a defendant could be placed at a robbery. After five hours of wrangling, we agreed to acquit him.

At the end of my two-week stint as a juror I came to the conclusion that the legal system may be slow – one is always being shunted in and out of court on a point of law – clumsy, and expensive, but it is also the hallmark of a civilised society. A jury may sometimes acquit the guilty; on the other hand, at least from my limited experience in Swindon, it rarely convicts the innocent.

Oddly, while my fellow judicial greenhorns were formidable, intelligent and decisive when it came to matters of the law, it was a different matter when it came to lunch. The canteen in the jurors’ room that should have supplied cups of tea and cheese sandwiches to us amateur adjudicators was closed (government cuts were blamed). The result was that when the court rose for lunch – and nothing was going to stop the judge rising for his midday meal – we jurors had to decide which Swindon eatery would get our patronage.

If the court had been in the Cotswolds then I could have steered my statutory companions towards some sort of local hostelry for a clementine chilli-soused salmon, watercress and shaved fennel salad washed down with a Market Garden smoothie. As it was, the decision was between MacDonald’s and Greggs; between a Big Mac and Fries or a Sausage and Bean Melt. I argued for MacDonald’s but the majority verdict was for Greggs. And so twelve good men (and women) and true marched through the Brunel shopping centre to an outlet owned by Britain’s largest bakery chain for an ‘always fresh, always tasty’ savoury snack.

I opted for a cheese and ham bake. It was disgusting. It is a strong opinion of mine that I guarantee I will never change.