Life at the Bar – The Man in the White Suit
I am not referring to the journalist, Martin Bell, who stood for Parliament some years ago but to a solicitor who had an office close to West London Magistrates Court. This was before it moved to being in the shadow of the Hammersmith Flyover. I had only just started working for another local solicitor’s practice as the second string advocate, when the outdoor clerk, a Welsh lady who liked a drink or two or may be three, told me I needed to meet Bob.
‘He’s really good looking, and single,’ she said acknowledging my own status. And so he was, six feet tall, a mop of dark hair and a sonorous voice with just a trace of an accent I recognised as being like my own. He was one of the many Lancastrians who had moved to London hoping to make their fortune in the big city.
When the court doors opened in the morning, the outdoor clerk would dash across the road to see if any of our regular clients were in the cells, and to try and get our share of the unrepresented prisoners. She would then come back into the office and prepare a list of the cases we had to cover. There were two courtrooms in the building and I was meant to do the shorter list, usually with the less serious cases and the man who was the main advocate would do the more important ones. It never seemed to work out that way and I found myself covering most of the work in both courts, which brought me into contact with the ‘man in the white suit.’
Actually it wasn’t his usual choice of dress, he normally wore a grey or navy blue pinstripe, but sometimes in the summer and when he wanted to make a dramatic entrance into court, he wore white. I liked Bob, but quickly worked out that he was not the man for me; far too eccentric.
However we worked well together in the courtroom even though we were competitors for business. A long list of clients meant there was too little time to see them all before the stipendiary magistrate came into court. Bob and I learnt to work the list officer so that our cases were not listed consecutively and so allowing a little time to see a client who had not yet appeared.
Cases in the magistrates’ court can be very amusing, and West London had its quota of fun, often provided by the homeless men who lived on and around Shepherds Bush Green. They were usually brought before the court for being drunk and disorderly, and although we wouldn’t be paid both Bob and I often addressed the court on their behalf. One man, it was impossible to tell his age from his appearance, he was so unkempt in a dirty mac, torn green sweater and a once white shirt was before the court for stealing a tin of salmon. He was one of Bob’s clients and this was one of his white suit days. The contrast could not have been more striking.
The defendant pleaded guilty to the theft and Bob stood up to mitigate on his behalf. He was immediately interrupted by the Magistrate, ‘Your client has been in prison too many times. What am I going to do with him? Send him back for a tin of salmon?’
‘That’s exactly what I am asking you to do. The last time he was in custody, he got his teeth seen to. The upper jaw. He’d like to go back to get his lower ones sorted out. That’s why he stole the tin of salmon. He needs a sentence of a least three months for the prison service to sort that out,’ said Bob.
He got his three months. Whether he got his teeth sorted out, I don’t know because that winter he died of exposure, and it was me and Bob together with the list officer who organised a whip round to pay for his funeral.