The life of a legal reporter can be described as hurried or maybe rigid, but nonetheless, as a student journalist of this course I, along with my 16 other counterparts, were thrown into the deep end. A visit to the Johannesburg Magistrate Court came a bit unexpected.
I might have, by unintended misfortune, forgot to mention that during the past two to three weeks we have had some great guest speakers come talk to Team Vuvuzela in preparation for court week. Among the very elite group was Dario Milo from Wenzel Weller who spoke about media law and defamation. I think the most important sentence which has been imprinted in my mind from that talk is “Defame but do so lawfully.” I now know that my craft is immune to defamation and it is not forbidden.
We also had Gilbert come speak to us about the court structure in South Africa and Franny, who seemed like a very experienced legal reporter and to my surprise she was excellent in teaching us how to target, hit and crack a legal story, which isn’t often the case.
I can say that we were sufficiently informed about courts and laws regarding the media before we entered this week. With this in mind I strolled in this morning quite exhausted but not highly preoccupied with the idea of court, it seemed to me that if I paid attention in class and read my notes it would be like riding a bicycle. To my surprise that was not the case.
We arrive at “Magis” court at 9am sharp. Ready for the day I hurry through the turnstiles, walk through the metal detectors perfectly, everything is fine and I was off to be a “legal reporter” today. It was that feeling of your first day in high school, full of excitement yet nervous to the core of my stomach.
Stumbling our way around magistrate court
First we looked at a schedule of sorts, which basically listed all the court cases which will be held today, in which court room, case number and accusers. I glanced over the crowd to get a peek of what this sheet of paper was all about, impatient to wait in the long queue for my turn I got some cases from a colleague of mine and proceed to jet off to the first court hearing.
The first thing I noticed as I walked into court four was the horribly squeaky wooden floor I had to place my feet on. It hits you like a shockwave and all of sudden, if things were not awkward enough the floor draws all the attention to you and you have 10 people staring at you as you try to make your way to some seat you think is appropriate.
I seat myself down and wait…wait…wait…and nothing seems to happen. People walking in and out, magistrate, security and police men whispering, grumbling sorting out papers, and I find myself utterly confused. I decided to walk out and find another court.
I and two other colleagues of mine find an attorney along the way who is kind enough to direct us to the trials of the day, on a green notice board outside one office in a dark passage. We follow his advice and enter court seven. A drug dealing case, an 18 year old boy arrested for possession of 22 rocks of heroine and two packets of cocaine. The accused has been in custody for the past eight months; he is acquitted and suspended to five years 10 months in prison or a R10 000 fine. Case one done, interesting but could be better. Case two upstairs in the district or regional court was a proper trial and I will be posting my article I wrote on it. Very interesting and educational. The day seemed to be over for me, time to head out of the courts for the day.
A conclusion on how the day’s proceedings went
Magistrate court is mayhem! It is a culture shock, from the architecture to the smells in the court rooms; it is something quite distant to what I am familiar with. It would be something you would have to adjust to and it is not something that comes in a single day.
I will admit I went into the day unprepared but I learnt some hard lessons in the newsroom this afternoon. I know that getting the charge sheet is of utmost importance, speaking to the stenographer, prosecutor or the accused or complainant themselves is empirical for acquiring the details of the case and getting the correct names of practically everyone in the courtroom is something you have to do, whether you like it or not.
Tomorrow is the High Court. So let’s see how this goes and I will keep everyone posted.