I swear, it feels sometimes as if I’m living in Chelm.
The other day, I had occasion to go to court, with a petition to remand a defendant in custody until the end of criminal proceedings against him. Under Israeli law, the court will not entertain such a petition unless the accused is represented by counsel. If the defendant cannot afford counsel, he or she will be represented by the Public Defender’s Office. For this reason, there are always two public defenders available every day (or at least, there are supposed to be) – one for Hebrew speakers and one for Arabic speakers – and they are supposed to be on call, in the courthouse. The duty judges (of which there are two or at most three, each week, are besieged, not only by prosecutors like myself, applying for remand orders until the end of proceedings, but also by police officers requiring search warrants, remand extension orders (before the filing of an indictment, for the purposes of further investigation), search and seize orders etc. as well as private citizens petitioning for restraining orders, injunctions, and various other emergency orders ex parte. For this reason, the Prison Service guards are unwilling to bring up prisoners from the holding cells, until both prosecutor and defence counsel are actually in the courtroom and the judge gives the go-ahead to bring in the accused.
Knowing all this, I attempt to ensure the presence of a Public Defender in the courtroom of Judge A. S. before bringing “my” defendant into the courtroom.
At this point, it is important to understand that the Public Defender’s Office recently changed their own internal rules and decided that the duty P.D. would not defend prisoners whose remand had already been extended, but that the Public Defender who had represented a defendant at his or her previous remand hearing, would continue to do so. Thus, although theoretically, I, as the prosecutor, have no obligation to enforce the internal rules of the Public Defender’s Office, de facto, if I want my case to be heard, I am bound to act as an unpaid secretary for the Public Defender’s Office and somehow make contact with the P.D. who was originally assigned to the case (almost always the duty P.D. at the time of the original remand extension hearing, who is “stuck with” the case), rather than simply pick up the phone to the Public Defender’s Office and notify them that John Doe will be brought to court for indictment and remand proceedings on such and such a date and at such and such a time. I’ve tried doing that and the response is almost invariably to tell me that “so-and-so is respresenting him, this is his/her number, call them.”
Did I mention that the Duty Prosecutor is no less busy than the duty judge?
However, I had noted from the protocol of the previous remand extension that the defendant had been represented by Advocate A. I call the learned advocate on his mobile phone – I get his answering machine. I leave a message. Then, just to be on the safe side, I send him a text message. Half an hour later, I have received no reply. I should mention that the existing remand order is due to expire at 11.15 a.m. I therefore contact the Public Defender’s Office, explain the problem and ask them who is the duty P.D. and who is supposed to be representing S.T. They tell me that Advocate A. is, indeed, supposed to be representing him, and that maybe I had the wrong number. The secretary gives me Advocate A.’s mobile phone number and his office number too, for good measure. It’s the same number I have already tried – and now try again. Still no luck – and at his office number, it’s the same story – an answering machine.
Back to the Public Defender’s Office. They refer me to the duty P.D., Advocate D. I call Advocate D. who informs me that he is not the duty P.D. that day and refers me to Advocate S. Messages left on the latter’s mobile phone answering machine and text messages fail to elicit any response from the learned Advocate S.
It is, by now, past noon. Technically, S.T. should have been brought before a judge by 11.15 a.m. or released. Fortunately, it has been ruled that as long as the defendant is in the courthouse and the prosecutor is ready to bring him/her before the judge, this is sufficient to fulfil the legal requirement. In any case, both duty judges are so swamped with petitions at present, that even if S.T. were in the courtroom at this moment, there is no chance of the case being heard yet.
That being the case, after the acting head of what I like to call our “Rapid Response Team” (which deals with emergencies and summary proceedings) takes it upon herself to contact Advocate S., I decide to go and have some lunch. (As you will see later, it’s fortunate for me that I do!)
Returning some twenty minutes later, I am informed by my colleague that she has got hold of Advocate S. who is now waiting for me in court and that I should text him. I do so – in fact, I manage to compress the whole story into two text messages – and then return to court (which isn’t far, it’s just 2 minutes away on the other side of the car park). As I enter the courthouse, my mobile phone beeps to inform me of an incoming text message.
It is my learned friend, Advocate S. His reply (and I quote) is as follows: “So what’s this got to do with me? Contact the Public Defender’s Office. They didn’t inform me that I have to represent him.”
Smoke is no doubt coming out of my ears as I enter Judge A.S.’s courtroom and pour out the whole story in her ears. Her reaction does not mollify me.
“So what do you expect me to do? It isn’t my job to solve your quarrels with the Public Defender’s Office. I’ll hear petitions where both sides are present.”
Explanations that it is now almost one o’clock, that the defendant’s custody remand actually expired almost two hours ago, and that the duty P.D. refuses to represent the defendant are of no avail. The honourable and learned judge advises me to apply to the Public Defender’s Office.
I almost explode – well, as much as one can explode without finding oneself in contempt of court. This is a scandal! Here am I, the representative of the State of Israel, attempting to abide by the law and bring a prisoner before the court, as required by law, for a custody hearing, and being thwarted (there is no other word) by both the court and the Public Defender’s Office!!! I say as much to the judge.
It doesn’t help in the least. I phone the Public Defender’s Office again and although I can’t remember exactly what tone of voice I used and what I said (I know it included a “threat” to share the whole story on YNet and Facebook), it is sufficiently “assertive” as to pursuade the secretary to connect me with her department head, Advocate B. After hearing the whole story, Advocate B. promises to solve the problem and to call me back within ten minutes. It actually takes her fifteen minutes. During this time, Advocate S. arrives to explain that he had received explicit instructions from the Public Defender’s Office not to represent S.T.
I am about to call Advocate B. again when I receive a message from Advocate D. (remember him, dear readers?) and another from Advocate B. both of them informing me that Advocate D. is on his way to represent S.T. and will arrive shortly.
“There’s a hole in my bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza….”
Advocate D. arrives round about 3 p.m. Not that it makes much difference. By this time, Judge S. is hearing a case in camera. Generally speaking, the court sits in public but in certain cases involving security issues, or whenever the defendant is a juvenile, only those directly involved or immediate family (of a juvenile) are permitted to be present. We therefore have to wait outside the courtroom for another hour – during which time, I thank heaven for my Amazon Kindle, which I have brought along in my handbag and on which, I manage to get through a few more chapters of the book I am currently reading (Eleni N. Gage’s “North of Ithaka”). This is the third Kindle e-book I have read while waiting around in court during the past month and a half, having been seconded to the “Rapid Response Team” for the entire summer recess.
Finally, some time round about 4 p.m. it’s our turn. Advocate D. (who is not familiar with the case file and is merely filling in for Advocate A.) moves for the court to officially nominate the Public Defender to represent the accused and to set a date for the hearing the following day. Motion duly granted. The whole hearing has taken less than three minutes. For this, we have waited some five hours!!!
As I make my way along the corridor to the exit, I look out of the window into the courtyard below. I should explain that the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court is situated in the Russian Compound, in an old building owned by the Russian Orthodox Church and that part of the building is still occupied by Russian Orthodox nuns, who live in one wing and have a cloistered courtyard on the ground floor, where they hang their laundry and keep birds and – it appears – other pets. My eye is caught by a flash of white. At first, I think it’s a white cat. Then I take another look.
A large, white rabbit disappears into the shrubbery in the centre of the courtyard, setting the seal on a day which has been totally surreal…