When the lockdown began and the courts closed, arrangements were made for bail and sentencing hearings to be held via video. Trials, though, were immediately stopped. It wasn’t until Contaxx was launched, three months later, that it was deemed safe for courts to reopen and for trials to resume. And so with the backlog of cases growing and the crime rate soaring, barristers were granted key worker status and sent traipsing to their robing rooms. In order to manage the risk of infection, the use of juries was suspended and defendants who’d been remanded in custody were required to appear remotely. The result, in Tom’s view, was precisely the kind of hotchpotch that Britain excelled at producing; a set-up cobbled together in response to events, rather than a programme devised to outlast them. It was a clumsy hybrid of tech and tradition, where barristers and judges attended in person—bewigged and begowned—but defendants, witnesses, and even victims could participate by video.
The case of Blake was listed at Inner London Crown Court, about half an hour’s walk from Tom’s Camberwell flat. It was nine a.m. when he left home, heading up Camberwell Road towards Elephant and Castle with his surgical mask pulled down, a bottle of water at his lips, and his wheelie case trundling behind him. He passed shattered shop windows, spewing groceries into his path, and mounds of rotten rubbish, stinking in the summer sun. He gazed into the empty sky—unscathed by vapour trails—and listened to the songs of the city’s birds. Not for the first time, he wondered whether their numbers had grown, or whether there’d always been so many, chirping en masse beneath the traffic and the chatter. But then he heard something else up ahead: a whimper and a pant, like a dog in distress. It sounded close, so he jogged towards it, passing a looted pub before turning off into a cul-de-sac. And there, slap bang in the middle of the road, he saw the source: two foxes huffing and howling as their claws scraped the tarmac and their bodies locked together.
Tom backed away, wincing. Then he laughed to himself as he remembered Sophie (maybe a year ago?) drunkenly rearranging Bella’s teddies so that Mr Fox was mounting Kitty Cat. ‘The Fanta-a-a-stic Mr Fox,’ she’d quipped with a sultry smile.
Her voice was still in his head when an ambulance swept down the street—its siren rising sharply to meet him, before falling into the distance. As it swung around the corner, he pictured PC Shah being rushed to hospital, then her family receiving the news. My opening speech should capture that, he thought.
As Tom saw it, the proper purpose of the criminal law was not simply to punish people’s wrongs, but to incline their instincts towards the common good—and with the country in crisis, he was confident that the law was doing exactly that. By proscribing and mandating certain activities, it was motivating citizens to act in ways that furthered the nation’s cause. The case of Blake, he believed, exemplified that: it centred on a set of new criminal offences that had been introduced to deter social interaction and thereby reduce infection. Their aim, undeniably, was to advance the public interest, and they did so aggressively. That would be the crux of his opening speech in an hour’s time: ‘the primacy of the common good and the sacrifice it entails’. As he went over his key points, mouthing the phrases he deemed most delicious, he felt energized by the purpose of the Law, and by the purpose he had in upholding it. Whenever he feared for Bella’s safety, whenever he yearned to be with her, it was this that sustained him. I may not be on the frontline, he’d think, but I’m fighting nonetheless.
He was approaching Elephant Square when his phone went. He pulled it out of his pocket, wedging his water under his arm, and—seeing that it was ‘Mum’—swiped to answer.
He managed to squeeze in his standard ‘Morning!’ before handing her the floor.
‘I’ve just been speaking to your darling daughter—’
‘—and … You’re not at home.’ Her voice was suddenly accusatory. ‘You’re outside. What are you doing?’
‘I’m going to court.’
Then slow and skeptical: ‘Are you sure that’s wise?’
‘I have to, Mum.’
‘But what if a juror coughs on you?’
‘We’ve been over this. We’re not using juries right now, for precisely that reason. Plus we’re getting tested soon, so—’
‘You said that last week.’
‘Yeah, well, it’s happening this time. Anyway, Contaxx would alert me if I’d been near anyone who had it. They’re on top of it, I promise.’
The Contaxx app, they’d been told, was the first step towards easing the lockdown. Widespread testing was the second. But three months after everyone had downloaded Contaxx, as the law required, tests remained scarce. Only police officers and doctors were receiving them regularly.
‘I hope you’re right,’ Tom’s mother sighed. ‘Bella’s missing you enough as it is. I don’t know how she’d cope if you—’
‘Mum, stop it. You just look after yourself, OK?’
She went quiet, and then: ‘I suppose …’ She hesitated. He could tell she was preparing to say something controversial, so he braced himself. It would be about Bella, or Sophie, or—
‘I suppose that wench will be at court.’
‘Oh come on, Mum.’ There was silence. ‘Her name’s Anna, and yes, she’ll be there. Why?’
Tom had been so preoccupied with preparing the case that he’d almost forgotten he’d be spending the day with Anna. He imagined placing his lips on her forehead and smelling her hair, then noticed that he’d picked up his pace.
‘Sophie’s doing a terrific job,’ his mother went on, ‘don’t you think?’
‘Yep.’ He knew from experience that if he let her talk, without taking the bait, she’d run out of things to say and move on.
‘I’ve no idea how she manages it. Cooped up all day like a hen with a chick.’
‘She deserves a medal,’ she added.
‘Alright Mum—she’s not a bloody saint.’
‘No?’ she snapped back. ‘So who did she sleep with?’
‘Look, I’ve got to go,’ he said. ‘Let me give you a call later.’
He hung up before she could respond, pulling on his mask and slipping his phone into his pocket. It was then, as he turned onto the main road, that the soldiers came into view.