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I miss the Bailey not Blunkett

The former home secretary absolutely no understanding of the vital function of the jury in our democ

Defending in a case at Woolwich Crown Court in south-east London. Most trials alleging terrorism are now listed here rather than the Old Bailey because the court is alongside Belmarsh Prison and prisoners can be brought to court through a linked tunnel. This avoids all the usual security arrangements of helicopters, outriders and the total disruption of the City of London at rush hour. Or so the story goes (though it now seems that the wreckers and disrupters were inside rather than outside the financial system).

The Woolwich court complex was built at the height of the Irish Troubles, but was never used for top security cases then. It was claimed that this was because high court judges and Queen's Counsel showed a marked reluctance to travel to the outer reaches of Thamesmead, where there are no good eating places and transport is desultory. However, the truth was that the tunnel leading to the courts was always flooded and prison officers on escort duty drew a line at wading through murky waters while handcuffed to detainees. I imagined that the Irish navvies who had built the tunnel sabotaged its drainage system "for the cause", knowing that the one thing prisoners love is a trip out to the Old Bailey. I, too, miss the Bailey. I could slip out at lunchtime and buy tights or a salad. My mobile could get a signal. I could jump in a taxi and get to the House of Lords for a vote at the end of the court day. Woolwich is a punishment for former sins.

The jury has to be sworn in. I love juries. I love how, in spite of all the pressures placed on them by the media and all the populist rhetoric about criminals, they resist the impulse to do the easy thing and simply convict. Even in terrorist trials they rake over the evidence, ensuring that only if it reaches a high level of certainty will they convict. For me, they represent the system at its best.

I still grieve over the Blunkett era at the Home Office. He was such a menace. He had absolutely no understanding of the vital function of the jury in our democracy. Here is one of the few places where the public has a voice and plays its part in crucial decision-making. David Blunkett just didn't get it. In a debate on juries when he was home secretary, he revealed that he had been profoundly influenced by that authoritative source, the American novelist John Grisham. His thriller The Runaway Jury had shown the secretary of state what happens when a jury case goes on too long. "It is excellent. It is an excellent, excellent book," Blunkett told the House of Commons.

While he has been less forthcoming on the provenance of some of his other policies, it is very likely that they, too, derived from the shelves of airport bookshops. His idea of extending jury panels so that they include policemen and judges was certainly transplanted from the United States. What he failed to understand is that in America, as soon as a policeman comes on to a jury, he can be challenged off - as can a judge, because the US system still has jury-challenges, which our system has abolished. The reason for the old exclusion was that policemen and judges are functionaries of the state and in criminal cases the state puts the defendant on trial. But then that was old-think . . .

Before our trial gets under way the judge informs us all that there is likely to be industrial action by some of the court staff on one day during the case, and explains that he will ask the jury if any of them has a problem with crossing a picket line; if anybody does, we will not sit on that day. I ask him to allow the jury to retire and to send back a note, rather than declare a political position in front of the full court. He immediately agrees and then roguishly twinkles at me: "Lady Kennedy, I had forgotten to ask if you had any problems crossing a picket line?" I narrow my eyes and then explain that my first duties are always to the court and to my client, who wishes to see the proceedings get under way. The brickbats suffered by the left!

At the end of the court day, I speed to Gatwick Airport to get a flight to Jersey, where I have a special task. Ten years ago I produced a report on widening participation in further education, called Learning Works. It led to the setting up of the Helena Kennedy Foundation Bursaries for disadvantaged students going into higher education from FE. I have poured my heart into it because it says everything I believe about education changing lives.

One of our students had a miserable existence, blighted by poverty and illiteracy. She had to shop by looking at the pictures on the tins. After a breakdown when she was 40 she came to the college, got a bursary and here she is getting a degree. And I am giving it to her. I have to get up at five the next morning to be back in court at Woolwich on time, but the journey will be worth every minute of my time.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How safe is your job?