Archive | January 2015

Broadchurch

I didn’t watch the first series, but the criticism about the courtroom drama in the current series has been such that I decided to catch up with the first two episodes with the benefit of the BBC i player I have now done that. Oh dear, they may have had a legal consultant but the script writer must have ignored any advice they were given. I know the fact that the Bar is a referral profession is Broadchurchinconvenient for drama, but the writer could have made a little more reference to reality. I cannot imagine any solicitor instructing someone who has not been in practice for three years ever; the law changes and the skills need to be kept up, never mind the question of a practising certificate.

Then the prosecuting barrister asks the police officer in the case to visit her at home to discuss his evidence about injuries to the defendant. The defendant’s wife appears to have been invited as well.  I know she is an important character in the plot, but surely a little more thought might have dealt with this issue in a more realistic way. Then she discusses with them the injuries and tells them they need to find a good reason for the assault on a prisoner. No decent lawyer would do that; she was almost telling them what to say

In the trial process, prosecuting counsel would not refer to the confession in opening the case to the jury and arguments around the issue of admissibility of a confession are made in the absence of the jury. Defence counsel did quote the correct sections of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, but that was the only bit that was right. Surely it would have been just as dramatic to have the legal argument in the courtroom and then switch to the family outside in the waiting area worrying about what was going on.

My main complaint is the idea that the prosecuting barrister is the bereaved family’s lawyer. Criminal Prosecution are taken on behalf of the state, ‘Regina v Miller,’ not the victim or their relatives. The way it has been portrayed is misleading to ordinary members of the public who may be involved as witnesses or where a family member is a victim of crime. Writers of popular series have in my view a responsibility to ensure viewers are not given a totally misleading impression of the way something as important as the criminal justice system works.

Advertisements

Oysters and George

I suppose George Carman was one of the more colourful members of the Bar and  my first meeting with him was a little strange to say the least. I was still an articled clerk and I was sent to GEORGE cARMAN qcBlackpool Quarter Sessions to sit behind him in a case of causing death by dangerous driving. He was a small rather busy man, always dressed in pinstripe trousers with a black jacket and the silk waistcoat worn by QC’s. The client was pleading guilty to the charge and after a rather tedious conference, with him George went off to do some work in the robing room. I was left sitting with the client until, about half an hour before the midday adjournment, I was summoned to see George.

‘Go and find out if there is any chance of our case coming on before lunch,’ he said. I did as I was told and scurried off to find the court usher. My enquiries revealed that we were unlikely to be called before the court rose. I returned with the news to the robing room. When I told George he snorted and said, ‘Damn, well I suppose we’d better make the best of it. Do you know where Robert’s Oyster Shop is on the promenade?’

It was a silly question; everyone living in Blackpool knew where to get oysters. I told him I did.

‘Good. Go and tell Robert I want a dozen oysters and a pint of Guinness and tell him I’ll pop in and pay later.’

I was to meet George on many occasions; there were a few other cases while I was still an articled clerk and then when I was living in London and had become a barrister, we frequented the same drinking holes, but I was never in the same case as him again until much later on in my career.

In early 1981 I was instructed to represent a solicitor who was charged with defrauding the Legal Aid Fund of many thousands of pounds. The case was tried in Manchester and I was being led by the leader of the Northern Circuit Mick Mcguire and George was prosecuting. As George called the various witnesses, court clerks, law society staff we began to undermine the prosecution case, which was based on a number of false premises, one of which was that a bail application would only take ten minutes of court time. That was torpedoed when a bail application was interposed in our trial; the judge said it would only take fifteen minutes at the most. It took over an hour as Mick Mcguire pointed out. George was clearly getting rattled as we scored again and again, until one lunch time we heard him on the telephone to the Director of Public Prosecutions. ‘I can take a few bullet holes below the waterline but a bombshell is too much.’

No oysters for George that day.

Life at the Bar – second murder case

I received the telephone call at about nine o’ clock in the evening. The police officer on the other end of the phone asked me if I could come to the station in Blackpool immediately. They had woman in custody and they thought she should speak to a solicitor. This was before the days of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act and asking any lawyer to see a prisoner before they were interviewed and charged was unusual.

Noahs Ark

Noahs Ark

‘It’s a serious case. She’s stabbed her husband and he’s in surgery at the moment. If he dies….’ His voice trailed off leaving me to deduce she might be charged with murder.

When I arrived at the police station in central Blackpool, I was shown into a cell where I saw Eleanor for the first time. She was in her late thirties, dressed in a tweed skirt and a thin blue sweater. Sitting upright in the edge of the concrete shelf that served as a bed, she was twisting and turning a white handkerchief in her hands. Her wedding ring caught the light from the single bulb.

‘Is there any news,’ she said.

I shook my head and said ‘No, not yet.’ And before she could say anything I sat down next to her and introduced myself.

‘Yes, the solicitor. They told me you were coming.’ She continued to turn the handkerchief over. ‘I didn’t mean to kill him.’

‘We don’t know that you have.’ I took hold of her hand.

‘We had such a row. He’d come in late the night before. Playing football. More likely down the pub. I’d had his dinner waiting for him since six. He said he didn’t want it. He went to work this morning, whistling away to himself. I thought I’ll show you. He came home at midday and I gave him the meal I’d prepared the previous night. What’s this he said?.I told him, it’s your dinner. He went mad and was swearing at me, then he picked up the plate and threw it at the wall. I went over and grabbed his arm. He shook me off and ran upstairs, pulled my clothes out of the wardrobe and starting ripping them. I tried to get hold of him but he pushed me away and went back downstairs. I followed and he told me to get out of the house. He opened the front door and tried to force me to leave. I told him I wasn’t going and ran into the kitchen. That’s where it happened. We were struggling, throwing pots and pans at each other. He was shouting at me to leave and I was screaming. I was backed up against the table and I reached back and the bread knife was there. I picked it up and thrust it at him.’

She began to sob. ‘That’s when the police officers rushed in and they took him away.’

I had been told that two off duty officers had been passing when they heard the sounds of a fight coming from the house. They’d rushed into the house and seeing Eleanor’s husband with the handle of a knife protruding out of his stomach, had carried him to their car and while one drove to the Hospital, the other held the knife in place and tried to staunch the flow of blood from the wound.

Eleanor continued to cry and I sat and held her hand. A police woman brought us cups of tea as we waited for news.  A little later another officer and came and gave us a couple of blankets.  I still had my coat, so I tucked one round her legs and the other over her shoulders. From time to time she still shivered. I pulled my coat around me. Eventually in the early hours of the morning, the officer who had summoned me to the police station, came into the cell..

‘He’s out of theatre and he’s going to live,’ he said.

Eleanor who had stood up when he came into the cell, sank back onto the bed, bent over and began to weep. I picked up the blanket and wrapped it round her again.

‘I think I’ll get matron. Perhaps she can give you something,’ the officer said. ‘Miss Barnes will want to go.’

‘I’ll see you tomorrow,’ I said.

Matron bustled in and took over. I left the cell with the officer and once away from the cell where I could not be overheard by Eleanor I said, ‘Will you charge her?’

‘Yes, Attempted murder. I assume you’ll be in court tomorrow.’

‘Yes.’ I said.

Eleanor was lucky. Not only did her husband survive the assault but after she pleaded guilty he pleaded with the judge for mercy and she was given a suspended sentence.

But I received no payment for the night I spent in the cells.

 

 

 

Eleanor was fortunate, her husband lived and what is more went to court to plead on her behalf

 

My Life at the Bar – First Murder Case

First Murder Case

The cell under the courtrooms at Blackpool was bare, the walls and floor the dull grey of unpainted concrete. There was no furniture. In the corner of the room crouched down, his head touching his knees, and rocking to and fro was the figure of my client, David W. He was dressed in a curious mix of ill-fitting clothes garnered from some unknown source; his own clothes having been taken for examination by forensic scientists. The door of the cell closed with the thud of heavy metal behind me and for a moment the rocking ceased as he looked in my direction. Blackpool

‘I loved her. Why would I kill her?’

‘Do you want to tell me about it?’ I said.

The rocking began again. As I waited I thought about David’s wife, Lynn, a thin anxious woman in her early twenties and known locally as the Mandie Queen, on account of her swallowing Mandrax tablets like they were sweets. Her body had been found three days ago lying naked on their bed in a rundown holiday flat on South Shore. The pathologist said she had died as a result of vagal inhibition when pressure was applied to her neck. That assault had resulted in the hyoid bone in her neck being fractured. Although her blood contained a high level of the drugs, they had not been the cause of death, indeed the level was insufficient to have killed her.

David continued to insist he had not murdered her. He said they had both smoked some cannabis and taken other illegally obtained drugs. Lynn had been totally out of it but was demanding he go out and get some food. He’d left her and gone to a local shop where he had bought some bread, ham and milk. When he returned to the flat she was lying on the bed asleep, but when he tried to rouse her he couldn’t. He felt for her pulse and then realised she wasn’t breathing. There was a stash of drugs in the flat, which he decided to get rid of before calling the police, but then he panicked and decided to run for it.

‘I loved her, why would I kill her?’ he repeated.

I didn’t tell him that I was aware he had been violent towards her in the past. Lynn had been to see me a few weeks previously, asking me to represent her in divorce proceedings. I had immediately told her I couldn’t do so as David was already my client, so I didn’t hear what she was complaining about, but a large bruise under her left eye told me all I needed to know.

I stood on the other side of the cell watching him rocking back and forth. It wasn’t really the image I had of a murderer. In my imagination they were tough, brutish, large men with snarling faces, a fairy tale thug, not this disturbed young man with a pale thin face and long dark curly hair who looked more like Prince Charming than a killer.

David maintained his plea of not guilty and the case was heard at Lancaster Assizes in the same court room where the Pendle witches were tried over four hundred years ago. The only issue in the trial was the cause of death, was she strangled or did she die of an overdose. The pathologist I had instructed took the view that the evidence of strangulation was weak, but when in giving evidence he accused the Home Office pathologist of breaking the hyoid bone in a clumsy dissection, the QC representing David advised him to plead guilty to manslaughter and he agreed to do so. He was sentenced to serve six years in prison, some of which he served at Parkhurst in the Isle of Wight, where his brother was serving a sentence for armed robbery.

A few years later the doctor we had instructed to give evidence about the effects of taking large quantities of Methaqualone, the active ingredient of Mandrax tablets sent me a paper published in a scientific journal which argued that the level of Methaqualone, in the kidneys was a better indication of poisoning than that in the blood stream. The levels in Lynn’s kidney was over the safe limit described in the paper.