Wednesday, 26 March 2014

March 26: The theatre is dark today

Because there was no sitting today, I'm offering our readers a novice blogger’s view of Courtroom 1709. As someone who just stepped into this 2-year long trial, I bring a somewhat different perspective from your regular blogger who is at a conference in Europe this week.

Courts are a lot like the theatre: there are sets, costumes, roles, entrances and exits, dialogue and monologue, an audience, and, if you are lucky, some interesting drama. There is no admission fee, however, and audience participation is not permitted, despite the improv nature of the “script”.

The play is about to begin: the players gather in separate clumps in the hallway. (The parties are civil but not sociable with each other. And they never take the same elevator.) The players and the tiny audience move quickly inside once the doors have been unlocked.

This stage has been set for more than two years. In all that time, this has been the only trial in Courtroom 1709 of the Palais de Justice. File boxes of evidence are stacked around the lawyers’ desks, making half-walls in some areas. Thick binders line bookshelves and are spread out on tables as well. Filing cabinets line the back wall. Microphones hang from the ceiling at regular intervals. Large screens are set up to the left and right of the bench, and smaller ones are suspended so everyone can see. The clerks occupy a table immediately in front of the bench, with lots of books, papers, computers and other gear at their fingertips. The bailiff sits in a corner, ready for the judge’s arrival.

The players get into costume. Lawyers have entered carrying garment bags or with black robes draped over their arms, and now they begin the robing process. The men wear white shirts and some wear a quaint black waistcoat or vest. The women dress the same. Then the black robes go on; some are elegant and pressed, while others look a little neglected. The final flourish is the white tab tie that goes outside the robe. Fortunately, the wigs of English courts have been left behind.

People take their places, strictly according to the stage directions. Lawyers are within the barred area, their non-legal assistants, some witnesses and lawyers without robes are in the next area back. Those people are all fortunate enough to have desks on which to rest their computers. And everyone has a computer. (The props department has done its work, I suppose.)

The occasional curious visitors, friends of witnesses and lawyers, and the bloggers—for other representatives of the press seldom turn up—spread sparsely through the farthest rows of seats, and work with laptops on their laps. At least electrical current is provided. This is more of a workshop production than a fully staged play.

The stage is set, the actors and audience in place. The bailiff hears his cue and announces, “Veuillez fermer vos telephones cellulaires. Please close your cell phones” followed by “All rise”. Then he goes to open the door for the judge, who enters stage right. With some electronic bings, and the screens coming to blank, blue life, the sitting has begun.

Our judge could have come from central casting; he really looks the part. His robes are deep black, with red shoulders and inserts, and an interesting red medallion on the upper back. He is nice looking and clearly very intelligent, pays attention to everything that goes on, slides effortlessly between English and French, and asks the best questions.

A witness stands at the clerks’ table, facing the judge, with his back to the spectators. Luckily he wears a microphone and his voice comes at us through speakers.

Unlike a play, there is no playbill, no program, no Dramatis Personae. Unless you hear each player addressed by name, or someone more knowledgeable whispers in your ear, you can see which side the characters are on, but you wonder who's who .

The day proceeds like all courtroom dramas; a witness is introduced and sworn; the lawyers who have called the witness begin the questioning; then comes cross-examination and redirect. The judge asks a few questions, responds to objections, and asks his most probing questions just before the curtain comes down.

At the end of the drama, the judge exits, and with no applause, the lawyers disrobe, the clerks shut off the screens, everyone turns on their cell phones, and the bloggers pack up their laptops, to go home and write their reviews of the show.