Tributes pour in for Sheffield's beloved "court watcher" who bore witness to justice being done in city for decades

Judges, barristers and legal staff alike have paid tribute to Sheffield Crown Court’s resident “court watcher” who spent decades observing cases before passing away earlier this week.

Friday, 13th November 2020, 2:17 pm
Andrew Mollison observed cases at Sheffield Crown Court for more than four decades, before his death this week

Known to many as the “court watcher,” Andrew Mollison, 74, was a permanent fixture at Sheffield Crown Court who touched the lives of almost everyone who had any association with it.

While an important tenet of our legal system is for justice “not only to be done, but must also be seen to be done” - as laid out by former Lord Chief Justice of England Lord Hewart in 1924 - it is quite rare that members of the public who do not have any connection to a case take up a seat in a courtroom’s public gallery.

Andrew started coming to Sheffield Crown Court (SCC) to bear witness to justice being dispensed in the 1970s; and not only did he take up an almost-permanent seat in the court’s public galleries, come rain or shine, but he also struck up enduring friendships with those responsible for bringing justice about.

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Andrew Mollison

Former Sheffield judge Michael Murphy QC has fondly shared his memories of Andrew, and the way in which he became “part of the lives” of so many at Sheffield Crown Court to whom he was “famous”.

His Honour Judge Murphy said: “He is known by literally hundreds of men and women whose lives have involved working in and around the Courts of South Yorkshire and beyond. He attended court every day as a “court watcher” for 42 years. He knew us all. He seemed to know all of our news and gossip, all of our successes and failures. He seemed to know when people were going to get a judicial appointment and when they tried and been unsuccessful.”

He continued: “Andrew was a legend. One of our judges in his farewell remarks when leaving after promotion to the High Court described Andrew as the Senior Court Watcher. Andrew loved the title and when any of us wrote to him, (which many of us did from holiday or when on a case far away) we always included the rank S.C.W after his name. We think he was the longest serving court watcher in the country.”

Andrew’s interest in the judges and barristers whose work brought them into his orbit as SCC’s resident “court watcher” saw him travel all across the country.

Judge Michael Murphy QC pictured in 1999

Judge Murphy said: “I must admit to some astonishment when I first saw him at the Court of Appeal in London.

“I was a rather nervous young barrister and something had apparently gone wrong in Sheffield to cause me to appeal to London. I was overawed and a bit intimidated by the scale of Royal Courts of Justice and when I eventually found my way to Court 7 there was Andrew sitting outside.

“He just wanted “to see how I got on,” he said. For this he had caught a coach from Sheffield at midnight the night before for £1 each way.

"My case lasted about 20 minutes. We had some breakfast together in the court café and then he announced that he was going to look around to see if he recognised anyone else.”

Judge Peter Kelson QC

Senior Sheffield judge, Peter Kelson QC, who described Andrew as a “friend” and a “constant” at the court, recalls a similar experience at the House of Lords.

“When I went to the House of Lords to be appointed QC [Queen’s Counsel advocate appointed by the monarch] who should be outside the railings waving at me, but Andrew,” recalled Judge Kelson.

Andrew, of Southey Green, was a part of Judge Kelson’s life for almost four decades.

“I started as a baby barrister in 1981 and he saw me all the way through to becoming a QC in 2001, and a judge in 2010,” he said.

Richard Wright QC

And while Andrew, may have spent decades merely observing court cases and the career highlights of the judges he admired - he did not shy away from sharing his views on the sentences passed down to defendants.

“Oh he’d let us know when he thought we’d got it wrong - as well as when we got it right,” laughed Judge Kelson.

Richard Wright QC, Head of Chambers, Leaders of North Eastern Circuit said it was “always a great delight” to see Andrew.

He said: “For as long as any barrister practising in the Crown Court at Sheffield can remember, an ever present feature was Andrew Mollison, latterly Senior Court watcher of England and Wales.

“He knew more about what the Judge would likely do in any case than the barristers appearing in them. Andrew would tour the North Eastern Circuit and the Country following the cases of his favourite barristers and judges, even travelling by night bus to London to watch cases in the Court of Appeal.

“He was welcomed by us all as part of our extended Circuit family and it was always a great delight to see him and to talk to him.

Sheffield Crown Court

"If you were particularly favoured to receive a Christmas card, a packet of pens and a diary. We will all miss him very much.”

Andrew had plenty of friends at Sheffield’s Bank House Chambers, and staff there even threw him a party to mark his 70th birthday.

One such friend was the firm’s Senior Clerk, Wayne Digby who saw Andrew at chambers every weekday morning for over 20 years.

"He became more than Andrew the court watcher, he became Andrew my mate. He was a legend,” said Wayne, who looked out for, and cared about, Andrew until his death this week.

The pair were even able to overcome their football rivalries, with Andrew supporting the Owls and Wayne the Blades, to have regular chats about the beautiful game.

“In the days before the advent of emails, I could find out more about my cases from Andrew than from my barristers,” said Wayne, adding: “He will leave a big void.”

Andrew was also held in high regard by many of the Star’s court reporters because he always had a smile for us and was an indispensable asset when it came to finding out the comings and goings at court and had an incredible knack at guessing when a jury might return their verdict.

Former court reporter Polly Rippon, who now works as a Court Reporting and Media Law teacher at the University of Sheffield said: “I am so sorry to hear about Andrew's death and my thoughts are with all those who knew and cared about him. Andrew was a colourful character. He was a friendly and familiar face at Sheffield Crown Court, who was always happy to stop for a chat and tell me which cases I should be covering.

"He knew all the gossip, which cases were coming up and usually managed to predict the correct verdict too. I was only telling my students about him last week.

"He was well known by the judges, solicitors, barristers, court staff and journalists and his presence at court will be missed by many I'm sure."

Former Star court reporter, Chris Burn, now Assistant Features Editor at the Yorkshire Post, added: “Andrew was a true institution at Sheffield Crown Court, who must have witnessed thousands of cases unfold over the years with all the drama, sadness and very occasionally humour that different trials and hearings involve. He was unfailingly friendly, courteous and kind to reporters and was always interested in what you were there to cover.”

Andrew passed away on the morning of Tuesday, November 10 after suffering a coronary. He tested positive for Covid-19 after being admitted to Northern General earlier this month, but his cause of death is not yet known.

Fittingly, the legal minds he admired so much will deliver a eulogy to him at Sheffield Crown Court at 10am on Wednesday, November 18.

This will be led by The Recorder of Sheffield, Judge Jeremy Richardson QC, and Judge Kelson along with members of the bar and staff from local chambers.

Anyone wishing to dial in via video link should contact SCC by emailing [email protected] or calling 0114 281 2400.

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