That episode with such a difficult judge contributed, I believe, to the decision by the Lord Chancellor’s Office to refuse my application for Silk. It wasn’t the events in Court but my reaction to it, which meant I was thought to be ‘not quite the right style for Silk.’
The Judge’s behaviour towards me in the course of that hearing had left me feeling rather bruised. In my view, I had been belittled in Court in front of my client, other barristers, solicitors and probation staff. Many of the Court staff were shocked by his behaviour and had apologised as if it was their fault.
I heard nothing from the Judge until a couple of weeks later I was at the same court and one of the court clerks said the Judge would like to see me in Chambers. I asked if prosecuting counsel in my case was wanted as well.
‘No. He’s just asked for you. I think it is about the other week.’
We both knew what she meant. I didn’t want to go and see him at 10 am before Court sat, not least because he liked to offer a glass of sherry to counsel invited to his chambers and I refused to drink at that time in the morning. On previous occasions, I had poured mine into the soil surrounding a potted plant, but on my own I would find it impossible to do that. But, and more importantly to me, his rude remarks had taken place in open court, I felt he should make his apology in court as well. I knew it was never going to happen.
I declined his invitation and although there was never a repetition of that scene, nevertheless I had clearly been struck off his Christmas Card list (not that I was ever on it) and I suspect was deemed by him to be unsuitable for Silk.
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.
Shop Lifting 2
The modus operandi usually abbreviated to MO of the Duff sisters relied on the similarity in their appearance, despite the age range from seventeen to thirty two. They were of similar height and their hair was cut to the same length, almost grazing their shoulders, and was a dark blonde with silvery highlights. They were similarly proportioned, neither too overweight nor too slim, unless they were pregnant and they wore almost identical clothes. Each of them had at least one small child, and two of the children were mixed race; they would dress the children in very similar clothing. The family acted a lot like a pack of lionesses in the way they cared for their children; it was often difficult to know which one of the sisters was the mother of any particular child..
The sisters would go into the stores usually in a group and then split up as they wandered around looking at clothes, making a display of their selection, holding the items up and waving them around to distract the store detectives. Some of the items were then secreted in the back of a pushchair. The one who had taken the clothes would then switch her pushchair with child to another of the sisters, and take that one’s child.
Normally the store detectives would wait until the sister they thought they had seen take something from the shop and hiding it at the back of their child in the pushchair was outside the store. By that time she no longer had the stolen items and could look aghast at being stopped and accused of theft. Sometimes one or other of them would be caught but never all of them at the same time.
That is until CCTV…..
So what happened to Sharon, the young woman I was there to represent?
The women all exchanged glances but before anyone could speak the door of the family court opened, the usher appeared and Sharon’s case was called on. I pushed the stories I had just heard to the back of my mind and walked into court with my client, leaving the three other women behind. Once in the courtroom I called Sharon to give her account of the incidents which gave rise to the application for an injunction preventing her boyfriend from contacting her. She wasn’t the best of witnesses and I could see that the judge was not impressed. Then cross examination began with the boy friend’s barrister asking Sharon if she wanted to stay at the Hostel or go back with Colin to her flat. Sharon hesitated.
‘Of course I’d like to go back to the flat.’
The Judge interjected, ‘Of course she wants to go back to her own home. That Refuge is disgusting.’
‘Yes of course, your honour. But I am suggesting that the witness wants to go back to the flat with Mr Fenton.’
‘Well say so.’ It was clearly the end of a long day. He turned to Sharon and asked her if she did want to go back to her boyfriend.
Sharon looked round the court room. First at me with a look of desperation on her face and then at Colin’s barrister who was holding a piece of pale lilac notepaper in his hand. I looked away: I knew what was coming. Sharon had seen the letter as well and was struggling to find an answer.
‘Let me help you,’ said Colin’s barrister smiling, and he handed the piece of paper to the usher and asked her to give it to Sharon. Sharon looked at it. The barrister paused.
‘Did you write that?’
‘Would you like to read it to the court?’
Sharon read out the letter she had written asking Colin to meet her at the shop near the Refuge to talk about her going back with their child, Angelina.
‘You met Colin by arrangement and went back to the flat with him?’
Sharon’s voice was dull ‘Yes.’
‘And when you were there, you had intercourse with him.’
I looked up at the Judge and, as I expected, he told me that I did not have any grounds now for the application. I agreed and he turned to Sharon and told her to stop being so silly and return to her flat. Then, with a swift nod, he rose and swept off the bench before anyone could get to their feet.
Once outside the courtroom, the three women wanted to know what had happened. Sharon was crying so I told them she had agreed to give Colin another chance for the sake of the child. ‘That’s right, isn’t it?’ I said. Sharon nodded her head as she wiped away the tears and blew her nose. All three of them looked at her in amazement, turned on their heels and walked away, leaving me with Sharon.
Along the corridor, I could see Colin saying goodbye to his barrister and then he walked towards them. He came up to Sharon and put an arm round her shoulders.
‘Come on, let’s go and get Angie and your things.’ And, without a word to me, the two of them strolled out of the building.
The usher came out of the courtroom and stood watching them for a few moments before turning to I and saying ‘They’re such liars, these people aren’t they.’
I smiled ‘That one was.’ but I wasn’t sure about the confessions I had just heard. I thought then, and still do they were true.
I sat very still, hardly daring to breathe, the pages of the brief unturned in my hands. Had both women been telling the truth? Weren’t they the victims of violence not the perpetrators? I didn’t know what to think.
Whilst I was turning these thoughts over, Sharon turned in her seat towards me. She appeared to be surprised I was still there but asked when they would be going into court. I said I didn’t know but the usher would call us when the court was ready. Sharon sighed and turned back to face her friends. The eldest of the three women reached over and patted Sharon’s hand. I had hardly noticed her before but now as she tried to comfort Sharon I saw that not only was she older then the others but she was dressed in more expensive clothes. Her white Mac was belted and she wore a blue silk scarf tightly knotted; both had seen better days. Her brown hair, which she wore in an untidy French pleat, was beginning to go grey and the lenses of her gold rimmed glasses were thick, emphasising her brown eyes.
It was completely dark outside; the only light in the room was from the street lamps and the lighting in the corridor. I went back to my papers. A telephone began to ring somewhere in the building and there was a squeal of brakes from outside. The familiar noises, breaking the silence, acted as a stimulus and conversation was resumed. They talked about the hostel and how difficult it was living with a number of other women and children. They spoke of who let their kids run riot, who didn’t do their share of cleaning the bathrooms and kitchen, who took other people’s food from the fridge and who always got their own choice of television programme. The eldest of the three women made very little contribution to the discussion until the talk turned to a child who played football in the garden, kicking the ball against the wall of the house for hours on end, then she said, ‘I like gardening. I miss having a garden at the hostel. It’s not the same when there are lots of other people walking all over it and picking the flowers. We had a nice garden at home. I spent a lot of time out there. It got me out of the way, being in the garden, particularly when Phil was in a bad mood. I like flowers – didn’t grow vegetables- perhaps a few tomatoes. Course, this time of year it’s a bit bare so I’d pot up some hyacinths for the house. I’d bought a bag of them in the market. Kept some of them back for planting outside. I had a nice blue bowl; the same colour as the flowers and when they began to grow, pale green shoots coming through, I put them in it and put them on the hall table. They did look lovely.’
She paused to light a cigarette from a green and white packet and I caught the faint scent of menthol. I wanted to ask them not to smoke any more but knew it was hopeless. They might stop for a few minutes but then they would light up again as the tension and boredom of waiting got to their nerves, so I said nothing. The older woman put the packet and a yellow cigarette lighter on the table, inhaled once and placed the cigarette on the ashtray. I watched as she continued to stare out into lamp lit street and saw her lower lip quiver. Was this woman about to admit to some similar incident? I sat very still, looking at but not reading the brief, and listened. The woman began slowly and without emotion.
‘He had such a temper and he came in that day in a right one. His tea wasn’t strong enough; I’d folded his newspaper the wrong way. It didn’t matter what I did, nothing was right.’ She raised her voice slightly as if she was reliving the event. ‘He was effing and blinding at me and I asked him to stop. He went from the lounge to the kitchen and back again, me following, trying to get him to stop swearing. We were pulling and pushing at each other. You know what it’s like?’
She turned to face the others and, even though I could not see their faces in the dim light, I saw them all nod. The woman moved her chair back so that she was facing the rest of the group. Her voice became stronger and she spoke more emphatically.
‘We were in the hall and he pulled away from me sweeping the flowers onto the floor. The pot broke, there was dirt all over the tiles and the stems of the plants were broken. I was really upset. I do like flowers. I’ll give you hyacinths I thought.’
She stopped and untied the scarf from around her neck, folded it neatly and pushed into her pocket, then pushed up the sleeves of her Mac, and continued. ‘So a couple of days later I asked him if he fancied a lamb stew. ‘Yes’ he said ‘That’ll be nice.’ I went to the butchers and bought a bit of neckend. I made a stew with carrots and peas but instead of onions I used the hyacinth bulbs. I peeled them, chopped them and fried them just as if they were the real thing. I put them with the meat and the other vegetables in a casserole, added some beer, to disguise the taste, and cooked it. When he came in from work I gave it to him. He asked me if I was having some. I told him I‘d had some earlier. He said he thought that it tasted a bit funny. ‘‘Mine didn’t’’ I told him. He went on and ate it all up. After about half an hour he started to sweat and said he was going to bed; he didn’t feel very well. He was in and out of bed all night going to the toilet and saying he felt sick. The next morning he looked awful; he was all grey and his eyes were dull. He told me to get the doctor. He told the doctor how bad he felt, going to the toilet all the time and feeling nauseous. The doctor said it was food poisoning and asked him what he’d eaten. He’d had a pie a lunchtime in the pub and the lamb stew. He said that the stew had tasted funny. I told the doctor mine hadn’t. ‘‘It must have been the pie.’’ the doctor said. Anyway, he got a week off work. Kept on about how I’d given him a dodgy stew. I never let on, even after we separated. I’ve never told anyone.’ She paused. ‘I do like a nice garden.’
The second confession
The youngest shifted uneasily in her seat; she was a thin pale woman in her twenties, her long face emphasised by her shoulder length, light brown hair. Her thin white blouse partly unbuttoned, revealing a gold necklace, was tucked into the waistband of a short denim skirt. She had taken off her leather bomber jacket and hung it over the back of her chair even though it was quite chilly.
The older woman returned to her seat, turning it so she could continue to look out of the window at the darkening skies. I pretended I was concentrating on my papers. Some sixth sense told me that I must remain sitting quietly if I wished to hear what this young woman was about to say.
The threat to make a complaint to the police by her friend’s husband must have struck a chord with the young woman because she began by saying, ‘Mine did go to the police but they didn’t believe him. They told him he must have fallen down drunk and that’s how he’d got the cut on his head. I did laugh about it later but …..’ Her voice trailed off, she looked down and took a deep breath before continuing ‘Well he’s a big lad; they just couldn’t believe I could hit him that hard.’ She turned to the older woman. ‘He is a big bloke isn’t he?’ she asked.
‘Yes. You only come up to his armpit. I’m not surprised the police didn’t believe him.’
‘Course he was drunk. He’d gone up town to watch Arsenal; been drinking all day leaving me with the kids. He’d promised to come home straight after the match so I could go to Bingo with my Mum. When he came in he was plastered; wanting his tea. I had a go at him and told him to make his own. He still had his silly supporter’s hat on, a bowler painted in red and white stripes. He was sat there yelling about his tea, telling me what he wouldn’t do to me if I didn’t get him some food.’
I looked at the group of woman round the table. None of them were interested in what I was doing and I was able to observe the women without distracting them. I thought how little surprise they had shown at the violence being described. Whilst these thoughts were revolving in my head she saw a small tousled head appear at the corner of the window into the corridor. At first she couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl.
The young woman continued ‘So I picked up the poker and hit him over the head with it from behind. Once I started I just kept hitting until his hat lifted up from his head, sort of popped up, and the blood poured down his face in little streams. He looked at me, his eyes wide open; put his hands up to his face, touching it.’
She demonstrated, putting her hands to her forehead and then her cheeks. I looked at her and back to the head at the window. Now a face appeared, pressed hard against the pane of glass flattening the features, two small, grubby hands palms facing towards me either side of the face. I put my hand to my mouth and pressed my lips together to stop from smiling..
I could still hear the young woman.
‘I think he thought that I had poured something over his head. When he looked at his hands and saw that it was blood he made a dive for me but I got out of the way and he fell onto the floor. The hat came off and there was blood everywhere.’
The little boy- it clearly was a boy- moved back a little and, looking straight at me, opened his mouth and stuck his tongue out. I began to laugh and then tried to turn the sound into a cough. Sharon and the artistically dressed woman looked at me and frowned before turning back to listen to their friend.
‘I didn’t know if it was the booze or me hitting him that made him fall over, but I didn’t wait to find out. I grabbed the kids and ran to my mum’s. I wasn’t dressed properly, still had me slippers on. I didn’t dare go back. So, I stayed there and the police came looking for me. They said they’d found him in the street, drunk, with this nasty cut to his head and he’d told them I’d done it. ‘‘Don’t be silly.’’ I said, ‘‘Look at me I’m only half his size.’’
‘‘Well do you want to go and see him? He’s up at the hospital,’’ they said. ‘‘We’ll take you up there if you want.’’
‘‘No, I think I’ll wait ‘til he’s sobered up a bit.’’
‘‘Might be best.’ they said.’’
Outside in the corridor a middle-aged woman, wearing an usher’s robe, came into my view, grabbed hold of the boy by his arm and pulled him away, mouthing the word ‘Sorry’ as she did so.
The young woman who had been speaking put her hands to her face, covering her eyes, bent her head down towards the table, pushed her fingers through her hair, pulling it back from her face before looking round at the others and smiling tentatively at them.
‘I haven’t been back.’ She added.
To be continued.
Attempted Murder 1. I started to find the silence uncomfortable when this woman began to talk in a low voice. There was an urgency in the tone that made me want to listen. I turned my attention back to the papers on my lap, pretending to work and hide my interest in the conversation. The woman was talking in a low voice and I could only just hear what she was saying. ‘The doctor gave me antidepressants after I had each of the kids. I had this post natal depression. You know what it’s like?’ She paused and looked round at the others but there was no response to her question, so she continued. ‘Mind you, it wasn’t really the babies that were the problem. It was him. He was always more violent just after the children were born. He’d wait ‘til I was breastfeeding and then start to hit me round my head. I couldn’t do nothing. Well you can’t do much holding a baby in your arms, can you?’ She didn’t pause for an answer but went on, ‘I’d just curl up over the little’un to protect him from his dad. The other two would be crying and pulling at him to try and stop him. But it made no difference; he’d just push them away. One year, it was the year Eddie was born, it was coming up to Christmas and I thought I’ve had enough. What I need is a nice quiet Christmas. So what did I do?’ She sat back, took a small, battered tin from her pocket, opened it, used the contents to prepare a thin cigarette which she lit and then inhaled deeply. ‘What did I do? Christmas Eve I got my pills and crushed them into his beer. Well he was too drunk to notice. That’ll keep him quiet I thought. He’ll have such a headache tomorrow he won’t want to get up and me and the kids can enjoy ourselves without him.’ I put my hand up to my mouth. The eldest of the woman looked towards me. I looked back at my papers and drew a question mark in the margin of the brief. That must have reassured her I was still working, the woman turned her attention back to the speaker who was tapping her left hand gently, but persistently, on the table top. ‘I thought he was about to go to sleep in the chair so I got him upstairs, got his clothes off and rolled him into bed. Well, it was quiet.’ she nodded as if to emphasis her words. ‘He slept all Christmas Day and Boxing Day as well. I thought I’d killed him.’ She took a quick intake of breath, put her cupped hand to her mouth and whispered, ‘Course, sometimes, I almost wish I had.’ ‘I kept going upstairs to see if he was still breathing. Eventually he came to. He couldn’t believe he’d slept through Christmas Day and Boxing Day. He went on at me until I told him what I’d done. I got a real pasting. He threatened to go to the police about it but he didn’t. For a while he laid off me, but then he started again. That’s it, I thought, I’m leaving.’ When no one spoke, I looked up. The woman who had told the tale caught my eye and then turned towards Sharon before shrugging her shoulders. In the silence a cell door banged shut on the floor beneath. The elder of the three got up and leant against the window ledge, putting her forehead against the cold glass. To be continued
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.