Over the years, I must have seen hundreds of defendants, but there are very few whose faces I can visualise now. One I can wasn’t even my client. I was sitting in court number 2 at West London Magistrates, waiting for my case to be called on, when a young man probably aged around twenty was guided into court by a police officer. He was quite tall and of a sturdy build; his black hair curled so tightly that his scalp was visible. In profile, his nose was straight without any hint of his African ancestry. His clothes were scruffy; a pale blue shirt hung out of his ripped jeans and his trainers looked as if they were a size too small. Despite it still being early spring he had no jumper and no coat with him.
He was before the court for the offence of ‘being in possession of an offensive weapon.’ A police officer got in the witness box and described to the court finding the young male in the recess of a shop door, sitting on the floor clutching to his body a large stick, which the officer produced. The stick looked like a branch of a small tree, a few inches in diameter and rather twisted.
Had he threatened anyone with the stick, the magistrate asked.
‘No,’ said the policeman.
‘Is it adapted in any way, for example, a nail in one end, or sharpened to make it into a weapon?’
‘No,’ said the officer.
‘Did the defendant say anything to show why he had this stick?’
‘When I arrested and cautioned him,’ the policeman held his notebook up and read from it, ‘It’s my only friend.’
Throughout the proceedings, the young man had been totally passive, his eyes looking inward as there was no future to see. His lawyer got to her feet, but the magistrate said she didn’t need to address the bench as he and his colleagues were going to dismiss the charge but not before the probation officer had spoken to the defendant and arrangements had been made for him to go to a suitable hospital.
I doubt he would be treated so well now as there is such a shortage of places for the mentally ill in our hospitals and that young man needed a place where he felt secure and would be treated appropriately.
Although I have been in close proximity to quite a number of very violent men I have only been assaulted twice in the course of my work. The first time was whilst I was still working as a solicitor and had been instructed to represent an Iranian man who was charged with a number of rapes. He was in his late twenties and, when I first met him, was quite charming. Because of the seriousness of the offences I instructed a QC to defend him.
The allegations divided into two groups. The first two were made by the same young woman, who said she had met the defendant in Covent Garden where he had told her he was a student, newly arrived in London and knew no one. She took pity on him and at the end of the evening she invited him to her flat. It was there that he had forced himself upon her on two occasions, despite her resistance. His case was that she was a willing participant in the sexual activity. My client had left the flat the next morning and despite the police being called immediately they were unable to apprehend him.
The second set of offences was rather similar, but took place a few months later. Again he had met a young woman who was sympathetic to him and invited him back to her flat. What he was unaware off was that she was living with a female partner, who returned to the flat later that night and found the defendant with her lover who was clearly very distressed. The partner called the police and he was arrested running away from the premises.
We made an application to sever the two sets of allegations and to our surprise the Judge granted it. My client was acquitted of the first group of rapes but was convicted of the second. His defence that the woman had consented was not believed by the jury, not least because her sexual preferences were quite clear. He was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Immediately after being sentenced he was held at Wormwood Scrubs and soon I began to receive letters from him telling me he wanted to appeal against his conviction. We had already told him he had no grounds to appeal when we saw him in the cells below the Old Bailey, but despite that oral opinion and knowing, as I did, that no appeal was possible, I did obtain a written advice from the silk in the case. I forwarded that to the prisoner and hoped that was the last of it.
A week or two elapsed and then the letters started again, begging me to file grounds of appeal. I ignored them. One day after I had been in court I returned to the office to find amongst the usual list of telephone calls to which I needed to respond, a message from the Probation Officer at the Scrubs. I returned his call and he asked me to come and see my client and explain why he was unable to appeal. I agreed somewhat reluctantly to see him the next time I was at the prison, which I knew was only a matter of a couple of days hence.
Once in the interview room I repeated the opinion of the QC and tried to explain why learned counsel thought the verdict was not appealable, in as simple a language as I could muster. The client became very angry and told me I was nothing more than a whore because I did not cover my legs and my head. I told him I was leaving. By this time, he was screaming abuse at me and as I stood up to leave he lunged across the table at me and grabbed me by one arm. He didn’t get any further, as the prison officers had heard him shouting and they seized hold of him by the scruff of his neck and dragged him away from me.
It was a distressing experience and I needed a stiff drink that evening.
Arson is a frightening offence, smoke and flames can not only cause enormous damage but the risk to lives is always present. Early in my legal career a fire at one of the public houses in Blackpool was particularly frightening. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but the fire caused extensive damage to the premises and meant the doors were closed for days in the middle of the holiday season. When the police began to investigate it became obvious that the publican’s son had watched the blaze and taken photographs of the fire appliances.
As the enquiry continued the Sergeant in charge found a scrap book which contained photographs taken at the scene of other fires in Blackpool, newspaper cuttings about other cases of arson and a broken footplate from a fire engine. The publican’s son was arrested and interviewed under caution, during which, although at first denying setting the fire, he did eventually admit that he had. He was charged and I was instructed to represent him.
When the fire broke out the defendant’s parents were not in the property, but his grandmother was and because of that he was charged with arson with intent to endanger life. The fire was attended by three fire engines and put the lives of a large number of firemen at risk.
The young man, my recollection was that he was in his twenties, had an interesting background. He had left school at sixteen and he wanted to join the fire brigade, but his application was refused. He was turned down again when he made further applications. He became obsessed with the fire brigade and set the fire at the public house so that he could watch the fire engines turn up and fight the fire.
The case was heard at the Lancaster Crown Court before a High Court Judge. He pleaded guilty and when the sergeant was called to give evidence of the defendant’s previous convictions, he took a very unusual step. When prosecuting counsel indicated he had no more questions for the officer, the detective sergeant turned to the judge and said, ‘My lord, I do want to say that during the course of the investigation I have spent time talking to the defendant’s grandmother; she is not well and I believe if the defendant was sent to prison it would hasten her death.’
The judge listened carefully to what the officer said and the other mitigation put forward by defence counsel. When he passed sentence he explained to the defendant that the sentence for arson with intent to endanger life was a period in prison, but because of the unusual plea made by the policeman on his behalf he would pass a sentence that allowed the defendant to return to his family within a matter of weeks.