The wheels of justice grind slowly, but always in plain sight
Justice is the great leveller, breaking the artificial barriers between those caught up in trials and those just looking on, writes Eilis O'Hanlon
Belfast Crown Court was last week shown CCTV footage inside Ollie's nightclub, in the Cathedral Quarter of the city, from the early hours of Tuesday, June 28, 2016. The time and place have become a regular feature of the trial going on inside Court 12, because that's the night an alleged victim of sexual assault met the two Ulster and Ireland rugby players she later accused of raping her at a house in the south of city.
Ollie's is situated in the converted vault of the old Merchant Bank building, now a hotel, and prides itself on being the "most exclusive" club in Belfast - having, its website boasts, "welcomed a host of celebrities, VIPs and socialites through its stylish doors".
That night the players were congregated in the VIP section of the club, along with some members of the Northern Ireland football team, and the young woman in question had entered that area with friends a short time earlier, after arriving to celebrate the end of exams.
Security hadn't roped off the area at that point, so ordinary punters were able to mingle freely. Observers in the public gallery of Court 12, who had come along either out of curiosity or for more personal reasons, leaned forward in their seats to catch a glimpse of the footage from the night.
In a way, Court 12 on the fourth floor of Belfast Laganside Courthouse has become the legal equivalent of that VIP area. A few moments before the day's proceedings begin, the two men standing trial for alleged rape - Ulster fly-half and sometime Ireland international Paddy Jackson, and his Ulster teammate, Stuart Olding - slip through a door from the public gallery to take their place in the dock alongside Blane McIlroy, one-time Ireland under-20 player, who is accused of exposure during the same incident, and Rory Harrison, known from playing for UCD and Belfast Harlequins, who is charged with perverting the course of justice and withholding information.
There is only a glass partition dividing those on this side, looking on, from those on the other, taking part. There are no security men to keep out the public. There is no rope separating "us" from "them".
Justice is the great leveller in that respect. It doesn't matter who is on trial and for what offence, anyone can go along and watch it happen in plain sight. It goes back to the quaint notion that justice must be seen to be done to bolster confidence in the fairness of the legal system.
Last Wednesday morning, text messages from the young woman were read out, in which she described her visit to the house where the alleged rape took place as her "worst night ever". Now the details of that evening are being dissected, painstakingly, atom by atom, in front of strangers. Everyone's actions on, and recollections of, a particular night two years ago are under the microscope. This transparency fosters a certain reassurance.
The setting also breeds a sense of distance from the events under scrutiny. Laganside is a fairly recent addition to Belfast's municipal landscape, having been opened only in 2002 and commissioned partly to replace Crumlin Road courthouse in the grimy north of the city. The contrast between that 19th-century pile and the shiny palace of glass that took over its functions could not be greater. Laganside is bathed in light, even on wet and cold February mornings. Its design speaks of functionality, without feeling impersonal.
Court 12 is apparently the largest single courtroom in the complex, but it is still constructed on a fairly modest scale. The public gallery runs the length of the court and has 100 seats. The four defendants sit with their back to the public gallery in a notably large dock - the courthouse has seen some major terrorist trials, with large numbers of defendants. The bench at which Judge Patricia Smyth sits is on the far wall, facing to the public gallery, with prosecution and defence barristers facing her. To her left is the witness stand; to her right, two rows of seats for the 12-person jury.
In the middle, various court officials sit at desks, surrounded by paperwork.
It's like watching a play unfold on stage, albeit one with frequent pauses.
Last Wednesday, the public gallery was a little over half full to see and hear the evidence of, first, Stephen Fisher, the taxi driver who drove the alleged victim back to her home, and later a female friend of the alleged victim, who had also been at Ollie's but did not go back to the house party. After a brief discussion, the day began with the granting of an order that the next set of witnesses, all friends of the alleged victim, should not be named to avoid identification of the young woman at the centre of the case. Northern Ireland is a small place, said the judge, with a high risk of jigsaw identification.
Time is frequently eaten up dealing with details. Wednesday finished early because one juror was ill. The judge apologised to the young witness and asked if she could return in the morning to resume giving evidence. There was talk of arranging travel for other witnesses. Last Friday, it was announced that Monday would be devoted to legal argument. The wheels of justice grind slowly, but we see them turn. Outside, the world goes about its business, in the rain. Next day, it all starts again.