Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Check your pockets

That's it, I'm bankrupt.

I'll give you the low-down in a moment but first I'd like to give my overriding thought of today, which is that the court staff were amazing - they were professional, relaxed, jocular at times (which helped!) and downright nice people. Everyone I talked to, the bankruptcy clerk, the ushers, the judge - all were amazing. They made a very difficult experience manageable.

Now the low-down. I was due at the Law Courts on Newcastle's Quayside at 11 this morning. I arrived too early and spent the best part of twenty minutes (each minute felt like an hour) wandering the Quayside, staring into the Tyne, wandering across theGateshead Millennium Bridge, and attempting to enjoy the cold but sunny morning. The sky was blue, not a cloud in sight, quite a beautiful morning, but one I didn't really appreciate.

With about twenty-five minutes to go I climbed the steps and entered the Law Courts. I didn't know what to expect, I'd never been in there before. It certainly wasn't likeRumpole of the Bailey, more mid-morning Tesco's crossed with airport security. Immediately on entering the building you come through a security door, I guess it's like a typical metal detector, while your bag is given the once over. Once through that I thought the help desk area was a little like it belonged to a downmarket office building - not the best decor, a couple of staff doing God knows what, the lifts and the door to the stairwell. I went up the stairs one level (I'd been told to go to the first floor on the phone last week), and hunted out the Bankruptcy Counter. It was in a small room to the right down a small corridor. Glass fronted, I could see the counter in question, the staff area behind it and a member of staff talking to a customer on my side of the counter (who I later identified as a fellowbankruptee ). Still being early I retraced my steps, found a waiting area and sat down, counting down the minutes incredibly slowly. The saving grace to the waiting area were the high, large windows overlooking the Tyne - it was still a typical November sunny morning out there in the real world.

At just before eleven I made my way back to the Bankruptcy Counter - a clerk greeted me and ushered me into an adjoining room where two other people were already sat across a table from me. 'These people are from the Citizen's Advice Bureau, do you mind if they observe?' I didn't. The clerk went through the forms with me, I signed where I was supposed to sign, and she efficiently went through all three copies - she was remarkably competent and managed to put me relatively at my ease. I pointed out the hieroglyphics from the night before and she simply said, 'Don't worry, if the Official Receiver needs more information they'll just ask.' Then she took the fee off me, all £510 of it (in mostly £20 notes with some £10s - strangely they didn't take credit cards! ;-) ), and disappeared to get my receipt for the cash. The man and the woman from the CAB were very friendly, when I said that I wasn't having my best of days the man simply pointed to a list of names on the paperwork left by the clerk and said, 'Don't worry, you're in company'. We passed the few minutes in chit-chat surrounding insolvency until the clerk returned with my receipt and my next instructions.

Next I was to wait to see the judge, who wouldn't see any bankruptees until 12. This was only just after ten past eleven (the forms had taken less than 15 minutes to process). First part of the process over I felt somewhat better and managed to relax just a little bit. After I had reported to the usher outside the District Judges area (I was simply asked to return at 12) I took a seat back near the front of the building in the waiting area outside Court 13. I managed to read a little - Moby Dick if you're interested, but mostly I took slow, deep breaths and watched the river outside the window and the cars passing on the road before the Courts. I texteed my wife, who sent a reassuring text back.

At 12 I reported back to the usher who proferred a seat in the waiting area next to his desk. At the time I didn't know it but I was surrounded by my fellow bankruptees. At about 15 minutes past another usher, in leagues with the first, began calling names from a handwritten list. It became obvious that the names were written poorly as a number of them were mispronounced and the two ushers treated it almost like a little joke - that they would have to complain to whoever produced the list. This simple jocularity eased the tension in the atmosphere and a few of us smiled at their antics. At no time were they unprofessional but they'd managed to soften the tone, to again help the process be more manageable for those being named bankrupt that day - and there were six of us..

I was last but one before the district judge at about twelve-twenty - four people had gone before me so you get a feel for how quick this part of the process was. Finally the usher escorted me to the judges chambers.

The judge was a distinguished chap in his sixties, smart suit, well-trimmed grey hair and a sharp intelligence glowing in his eyes. He sat at the top of a table shaped in the form of a 'T'. I was shown to a side of the table, opposite me sat the man and woman from the CAB - they weren't re-introduced and I don't really remember looking at them, my focus being solely on the judge. To the left of the judge another individual sat, again in a smart suit but younger, some court functionary I guessed. I don't know if the usher stayed in the room or not.

The judge started by saying, 'I well tell you what I tell all those that come before me. I'm not here to judge you or comment on how you got into debt. I am simply hear to see if bankruptcy is the best option for you. Now, your debts are £54000, have you got it?'
'No, I haven't' I said.
'Check your pockets,' he said. I swear, he really did.
'I haven't got anything in my pockets unfortunately,' I replied.
'No other means of paying?'
'If I had, judge, then I would have already payed it.'
'Fair enough,' he said. 'Well then, you have this debt, you don't have the means to cover the debt, therefore it's quite simple.' He signed his name on a piece of paper in front of him, 'Then I declare you bankrupt.'

I think I stuttered a 'thankyou', but I'm not sure how it came out.

'I want you to do three things,' he concluded. 'I want you to take this envelope back to the office where you were first dealt with. Second, you are to make no attempt to pay your creditors, as that is now a matter for the Official Receiver. And third, I want you to go home and get a really good night's sleep tonight. These debts are not to be worried about anymore, it's all behind you.'

What a judge.

Final thankyou's and I was out after probably less than two minutes.

I took the envelope with my paperwork back to the bankruptcy clerk. I guessed I expected more paperwork but she simply gave me a copy of the forms, now with my bankruptcy number on the top, she then told me to expect to hear from the Official Receiver in the next few days and then wished me luck. I checked that I was allowed to now open a new bank account, yes I was, and I was back on the street in front of the Courts by twelve thirty.

It was still sunny, quite cool, and a few clouds in the sky now. For the first time I appreciated the day as I walked slowly back up the hill into central Newcastle.