There must have been a fair amount of social security frauds when I was in practice as another incident, with a Judge behaving badly, also concerned a woman who had obtained welfare payments by deception. My own opinion was that too many Judges had no idea how difficult it was to manage on so little money. Most lawyers would have thought nothing about paying forty pounds for a pair of children’s shoes – it was less than they would spend on a bottle of wine. But the law is the law and it is taxpayers money.
I was instructed to represent another woman charged with offences of obtaining welfare payments by deception. It wasn’t her first court appearance and she had been given a suspended prison sentence to enable her to see a psychologist in the hope that dealing with some of her many problems would stop her reoffending. It had not, and although the Probation Officer was asking for another chance – she had failed to keep the appointments with the psychologist on occasions but not always for perfectly proper reasons – I thought she was likely to go to prison. No one should forget that sending a woman to prison often means that children have to go into care.
Despite my own opinion, I stood up to mitigate and asked the Judge to consider taking the course that the Probation Officer suggested, which I think was a period on Probation. The Judge was not having it and kept interrupting me. I persisted in mitigating on behalf of my client in accordance with my instructions. At which point the Judge lost it and began to yell at me that I was to cease immediately. ‘With respect Your Honour,’ a respect I was not feeling at that precise moment, ‘If I can just finish…’
‘No you cannot,’ he said.
‘But, Your Honour…’ I was interrupted again.
‘Sit down. Sit down.’ By this time, the Judge was purple in the face and looked like he was bursting at the seams. I expected his wig to begin bouncing on his head.
At first I didn’t sit down because I thought he would see he was being unreasonable and hear me out, and then impose whatever custodial sentence he thought appropriate. Instead he began to roar at me to sit down. This time I complied. He stormed off the Bench, leaving me in the courtroom, bemused; the ushers, the court clerk, prison staff and warrant officer were all open mouthed at his behaviour.
He sent a message that the case was to be transferred to another court where the Judge who had imposed the suspended sentence was sitting; he did treat her with some leniency and made the Probation Order.
This incident had unfortunate consequences for me, but that’s for later.
We like to think that our judges are, well, just and are, at least when on the bench, upright, sober men and women. The majority are but just occasionally they misbehave and the mask of respectability slips.
One day I was representing a woman, let’s call her Muriel, charged with obtaining social security by fraudulently claiming benefits to which she was not entitled. As usual she was a single mum trying to support her family with too little money. I can’t now remember the exact nature of the lie she had told to increase the welfare payments, but probably it was the small amount she earned from working part time. It wasn’t the first time Muriel had been before the courts for similar offences although it was some years since the last conviction.
She pleaded guilty to three offences of obtaining benefit by fraud and I said what I could on her behalf. My plea in mitigation fell on deaf ears and she was sentenced to six months on each count.
My recollection is that I had other cases at court that day, so I was still in the building in the late afternoon, when I was asked to go to the cells. Once down in the bowels of the courthouse I was told by one of the prison officers that the judge had requested my client be taken back up to the dock. I went to see her in her cell. She was a small woman, dark eyes now red-rimmed, and dark brown hair scraped back into a ponytail. She wanted to know why the judge wanted to see her again. I told her I didn’t know.
After my brief conversation with her I went back into the courtroom. None of the lights in the room was on, only a dim grey light from high windows penetrated the gloom. The panelling around the walls, the judge’s bench and all the seating were dark wood making it seem even darker and more austere. The judge’s bench was raised up and stretched across the width of the room. To one side of the raised area was a red curtain hung on a heavy brass pole. Behind that curtain was the door to the judge’s chambers. I was the only person there; no ushers and no clerk. After a few minutes Muriel was brought into the high dock at the rear, by two prison officers. We all waited in silence.
Suddenly the curtain was swept aside and the Judge staggered onto the bench. He was not robed save for his tabs, but was dressed in a pinstriped suit. In his right hand he had a half full wine glass which he was waving around. He took three steps into the room turned to look at Muriel and said, ‘Those sentences, they are consecutive not concurrent.’ As he was speaking he raised the wine glass and finished with the one word ‘Cheers,’ then fumbled his way back behind the curtain and into his chambers.
The sentences being consecutive meant a term of eighteen months imprisonment not six. Fortunately the prison officers ignored the impromptu and probably illegal sentencing session and recorded the sentence at concurrent.