A typical Old Bailey trial

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BEFORE a case comes to trial there would have been several earlier hearings, in which the defendant’s plea would have been taken and some preliminary legal matters sorted out.

Often there is some legal argument on the day the trial is set to begin. This usually concerns whether the jury can hear certain evidence. Issues over whether screens or video should be employed are also sorted out. Vulnerable witnesses, such as rape victims, are often allowed to give evidence shielded from the defendant by use of screens and video links. The Jury is then sworn in; each juror takes an oath to give a ‘true verdict’.

Peter Beaumont, Recorder of London
Peter Beaumont, Recorder of London 2004-2013, in his blue-fringed robes.

The prosecutor, nearly always a barrister although solicitors have recently been allowed to take Crown Court cases, will give an opening to the jury. This is a brief summary of the prosecution’s case, so the Jury can put into context the evidence when it is given.

The prosecution then begins calling its witnesses. Evidence can be given in two ways: from the witness box or, if the evidence is agreed by both defence and prosecution, it can be read. This is to save witnesses the time and expense of coming to court if no questions are going to be asked of them.

Each prosecution witness may be cross-examined by the defence barrister. The prosecutor will then sometimes re-examine the witness after the defence barrister has finished their questions. Usually the last evidence called by the prosecution is the statement the defendant made to police. This is usually done by the prosecutor taking the part of the defendant and a police officer being called to the witness box to take the part of the questioning detective. They then read in full the questions and answers given in the interview or interviews conducted with the defendant following arrest.

The defence then puts their case. It usually begins with the defendant being called into the witness box. In some cases the defendant does not give evidence; it is entirely his or her choice. The prosecutor is entitled to cross-examine any witnesses called by the defence.

At the conclusion of the defence case the prosecutor will give a closing speech to the Jury, identifying all the important points he/she thinks the Jury should consider. The defence then gives their closing speech. Finally the Judge sums up the case, giving equal balance to both prosecution and defence, and directing the jury on law.

For instance, in a murder case, the Judge will remind the Jurors that they can only convict the defendant of murder if they have no doubt whatsoever that he/she meant either to kill the victim or cause really serious bodily harm. If jurors believe the defendant killed the victim but cannot be sure of the necessary intent to cause harm, they should find the defendant guilty of manslaughter.

If the defendant is found guilty, the Judge will then pass sentence. Quite often the case is adjourned for reports to be prepared. This enables the Judge to have a full picture of the background circumstances of the defendant, to help him or her pass a fair sentence.

It has been reported that it costs £150 a minute to run an Old Bailey trial

The most senior barristers are called Queen’s Counsel and are known as QCs. They can be identified by a rectangular flap of black silk hanging from their gowns just below their necks. When a barrister is made up to a QC it is known as ‘taking silk’. To become a QC a barrister has to have practised for 10 years and shown excellence in his or her profession. A panel from the Bar Council chooses the candidates, whose names are then given to the Queen, who then announces the successful candidates.

There are three types of judges who preside over cases at the Old Bailey.

Recorders: who are senior barristers. They are required to work as a judge part-time for a few weeks of the year after becoming a QC.

Judges: who work full-time, hearing Crown Court cases. Often, the most able barristers do not become judges because the financial rewards are much greater if they remain a barrister.

Judges known as Justices: They are the most senior judges to be found at the Old Bailey. They usually sit at the High Court in (the) Strand, dealing with appeals and civil cases. But in really big criminal cases, such as the murder trial of Ian Huntley (who was accused of killing two 10-year-old schoolgirls), they are asked to act as the judge. They can easily be identified because they wear red robes, whereas recorders and normal judges dress in black robes at the Old Bailey. However, there is one exception: the most senior resident judge at the Old Bailey also wears a red robe. He has the title of Recorder of London, and you can distinguish him from the justices because his robe is fringed with blue whereas the justices’ robes are trimmed with white fur.


Courtenay Griffiths QC, Judge Ann Goddard, Mr Justice Moses, Richard Latham QC
Clockwise from top left: Courtenay Griffiths QC, Judge Ann Goddard, Mr Justice Moses, Richard Latham QC

Courtenay Griffiths QC: for many years one of very few senior black lawyers in the UK. He defended one of the defendants in the first trial for the 2000 killing of 10-year-old Damilola Taylor.

Judge Ann Goddard: For many years the sole female resident judge at the Old Bailey. She is pictured here on her first day back at work after, in 2001, a defendant on trial for murder leapt from the dock and attacked her. Millions of pounds were spent on upgrading security in the courts as a result.

Mr Justice Moses: Presided over the 2003 trial of Ian Huntley for the murder of Soham schoolgirls Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells.

Richard Latham QC: Successfully led the prosecution for the Crown against Ian Huntley. Huntley was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.


The Court Clerk – who is dressed just like a barrister, in a wig and gown – sits in front of the Judge.

Most of the barristers are usually to be found in the benches opposite the Jury.

The defence barrister is always allowed to be nearest the defendant, or the Jury, depending on the layout of the court. Often both the prosecution and the defence have junior barristers working with them; they usually sit behind or, if there is enough room, beside the barrister they are working with.

Behind the prosecution barrister sits a representative from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), who helps in the presentation of the case. He or she is usually a solicitor. The CPS has now started employing barristers full-time as in the past barristers worked on a freelance basis.

The defence barrister or barristers will also have a solicitor sitting behind them, who has helped prepare the case.

Police officers sit either in the back rows behind the barristers, or tucked away at the back of the court.

All courts have a press bench for reporters, but these are only used in big trials of great public interest when there is a shortage of seating. This is because press benches are usually a long way from the court exits and reporters like to go in and out of court at important moments so they can write their stories. A reporter sitting in the press bench is likely to disturb the court as they make their way out of the court, so journalists usually ch0ose to sit by the exits.