If you see me in court, I'll be laughing

14th November 2003 at 00:00
When I became a headteacher, no one warned me that I would make occasional appearances in the law courts. Over the years, I have been called in a variety of cases, all of them connected with school and families and all of them featuring me as witness rather than accused.

After an early lesson about keeping a straight face at all times, I found myself anticipating a court appearance with some pleasure. It is always a relief to exchange the customer service ethos of school, where children and parents are always right, for a refreshing breath of arrogance from the court system which cares nothing for the general public and does not pretend otherwise.

My first court appearance followed a midnight break-in at the school in the days when our only valuables were a lone BBC microcomputer and a Betamax video recorder. I tagged behind some burly police officers as they ambushed two intruders in the darkness. Unfortunately, the intruders were exploring our nursery class at the time and since nursery classes can be somewhat eccentric in their organisation of furniture, the officers soon fell over each other into the sandpit, at the same time releasing their grip on their captives.

One intruder ran off across the darkened playground and vaulted the fence at the far end in an attempt to make good his escape. Being a stranger, he did not know that although we have another playground beyond the fence, there is a drop of 20ft from one to the other. The chase became less urgent when we heard his blood-curdling scream just before he hit the bottom. He wasn't going anywhere fast with two broken ankles.

I was ready to be impressed, months later, when we all met for the court hearing. It was not Perry Mason and there was no last-minute intervention from a surprise witness but the unconscious comedy compensated for the lack of drama.

The defence tried to pin the blame on me. They stated that the two intruders were friends of mine who had a long-standing invitation to enter the building and use the toilets whenever they wished. Anyway, it was my fault that one of our rickety windows was not properly locked thereby causing the school to be an open house to any passer-by.

Oh, and it was negligent of me not to have warned my intruders that jumping from one playground to another was not an effective means of escape. No one believed a word of the defence, all faces remained straight. I was part of the game and was not expected to take anything personally.

On my subsequent appearances, nothing has changed. The court continues to hold the general public in a high level of contempt and we accept it.

Lawyers huddle together, do deals, change arrangements, generally wander around and communicate with no one beyond their own circle.

It is impossible to discover what is happening, to find a cup of tea or to come in out of the rain during lunchtime. You turn up promptly at 2pm, as requested, and ask for directions.

"That case was abandoned at 10.30am. Did you not know?" is the disdainful reply, brilliantly implying that the fault is all yours.

Best of all are the backstage arrangements where witnesses and accused are all gathered in the one small room for the convenience of solicitors.

Eyeball intimidation is the name of the game once the accused realise that sitting opposite are the witnesses whose testimony can sink them. A bit of bribery would be more subtle but, so far, I have missed out on that line.

School life is now so solemn that when you do laugh someone stands on their dignity and objects that you are not taking them seriously enough. It's just as well that I can look forward to the occasional court appearance for a dose of comedy.

Brian Toner is headteacher of St John's primary school, Perth.

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