By Robert Gage
Barry doesn’t have a magistrates’ court any longer. That’s a real shame because it was a rich seam of interesting news stories for me working as a fledgling reporter in the early noughties and supplying stories to the Barry and District News where our esteemed blog host once ruled with an iron hand.
The Old Bailey it was not. It was a fairly miserable building all told, desperate for a lick of paint, possibly brimming over with asbestos. The leatherette-faced seating was of a time but not a recent one. Possibly 1975. John Thaw playing Jack Regan wouldn’t have looked out of place there.
Some of the people appearing before the court were what you might call season ticket holders. Well known to the court staff, they would crop up periodically having committed a further misdemeanour which would result in a run in with the police and a summons. In some cases, the list of previous offences reeled off following the guilty plea took longer than the plea and mitigation that came before.
There were some downright bizarre ones as well. 20 years ago, a certain individual who shall remain anonymous given the time that has passed, was jailed after he streaked into a meeting of the Penarth Women’s Institute. The court heard how he stripped off to weigh himself in Boots during a busy lunchtime, apparently to get an accurate reading.
Generally, motorists booting it through Five Mile Lane weren’t of huge interest to Editor at the time, our very own Mrs SVJ – unless they were touching three figures. And I was more than a little uncomfortable when an ex-girlfriend appeared in the dock, accused of stabbing and wounding her partner.
One case which was particularly unfortunate was that of an elderly woman whose son had entrusted her with the job of watering his plants while he went for a weekend away. Having fulfilled the request, she neglected to lock the door after her and concerned neighbours, knowing the man was away, called the police to report intruders. They arrived to find her watering her offspring’s cannabis crop and the book was thrown at her, not him.
And having the airport in the district, Barry Magistrates’ court always got the cigarette and booze smugglers. These were cases where Derek and Dora went a bit berserk with the Marlboro Lights at Alicante Airport after their holiday. These were generally professional operators who had networks to sell on the contraband with enough of a markup to make it worth their while. HMRC generally knew who they were looking for before they’d even got off the aircraft in Rhoose.
The magistrates themselves were almost as interesting as the defendants. There was one woman, whose name I genuinely cannot remember, who was always immaculately turned out and commanded a formidable presence in the courtroom. She drove a turquoise Jaguar too.
Being a regular reporter at court, you also got to know the magistrates who would fly through the list, and the ones who took things at a more leisurely pace. These were, after all, lay people and not legal professionals, for being a magistrate is all about giving back to your community, whereas judges and stipendiaries were paid for their trouble.
Like my journalistic career, the magistrates’ court in Barry is no more and that’s a great shame (about the court, not my career – journalism was badly paid and largely quite tedious in my opinion). Barry and the Vale is an urban area in its own right and justice should be administered locally. Many local courts were cut to save money a few years ago and cases centralised in bigger courthouses.
Now your local villains have to go to Cardiff to have their cases heard. It’s not what you might call progress.
I covered Cardiff occasionally but it was difficult to get decent stories out of there because there was so much going on and the staff were (20 years ago at least) fairly unfriendly with everyone. The building itself reminded me a of a giant leisure centre changing room, with an abundance of tiles presumably meant to make it easier to clean after vandalism or other acts of desecration. It also means the police have to travel into the city to play their part too. It can’t be a great use of their already stretched resources.
The other depressing thing is that fledgling reporters, like I was, probably don’t get a chance to go to court any more, and it’s highly unlikely that they’d be allowed a day out to travel from Barry to Cardiff. The human side has been replaced by telephone menus, chatbots and faceless bureaucracy. And reporters just have to fill the pages now, probably from behind a desk. Times move on. Not always in a good way.
Robert Gage is an accomplished communications specialist. Once a journalist with a small news agency in Cardiff, who went into PR about 20 years ago. The former Cadoxton resident now lives in North Wales.
Thanks to Rob for writing exclusively for Mrs SVJ – the community blog of Sue Vincent-Jones. Sue is a journalist, editor, and communications specialist who blogs about Barry – and her life in the wider world, through the eyes of a quirky, and queer, girl done good.