I went to see the film last night. I’d read the book when it was first published and did say in a review that I thought Ian McEwan had done a brilliant job of portraying the life of a lawyer – in this case a judge. The film is perhaps even better. Emma Thompson is superb as the judge Fiona Maye. Every advocate knows that moment as one walks into the courtroom – one’s personal life, ones feeling left behind. Emma Thompson gets it just right.
The scenes in court reflect the real world. One could say that the robes aren’t quite right but the behaviour is. A High Court Judge in a tetchy mood is not to be trifled with. It also demonstrates the emotional cost for lawyers dealing with these very difficult cases, not just in the family courts but in the criminal courts as well.
The setting of the film in and around the Royal Courts of Justice and Grays Inn are as I remember them. Elegant buildings, a haven from the rough and tumble of every day London, set around manicured lawns.
The trial was to take place at the Old Bailey and the Crown main’s evidence was that of the Professor. Although he had never seen Enid he wrote a full report on her and the dead children, dismissing the results of the post mortems and concluding she had murdered all three children. The silk leading me wasn’t over impressed but he didn’t think we could object to the report being presented to the court. We also sought the advice of one of the most experienced forensic pathologists in the country. He thought the Professor’s report was probably correct. We had a conference with him to try and see if there was any way of disputing it. One of the features of the case was that all the children were very premature.
‘Is it possible that being born prematurely would make them more susceptible to being the victim of SIDS?’ I said. I asked the question because I had been recently diagnosed with late onset asthma and my GP had asked me if I was premature. When I confirmed I was, she said there was a link between poor lung function and asthma. Also a friend of mine had a young child who was very premature and I knew he still had a number of problems.
‘The children wouldn’t have been discharged from hospital if there had been any risk,’ the pathologists said. The QC nodded his agreement.
It began to look as if there would be no defence to the case. However the psychiatrist’s report from the secure unit described Enid as having an IQ of 65, very low indeed. Additionally she had no sense of reality and confabulated all the time. That meant she told lies and she remembered her lies better than the truth. Their view was that her admissions to the social worker and the police were unreliable. Without the admissions the prosecution case was reliant on the Professor who didn’t examine either the children or Enid and was in conflict with the evidence of the pathologists who had carried out the post mortem.
The prosecution had their own psychiatrists examine Enid and they too came to the conclusion the admissions could not be relied on. The prosecution was dropped and Enid acquitted on all three counts of murder.
That wasn’t the end. When Enid gave birth to her fourth child the baby was taken into care and the subsequent care proceedings in the Family Courts confirmed that decision. The judge found on a balance of probabilities she had killed her children, but of course he was relying on the Professor’s theory which has been discredited.
So did she kill her children? What about the low IQ of both Enid and her husband? In addition the children were all born prematurely; what role did that play? Both Enid and her husband smoked – a known factor in SIDS. Then they were very poor and that too may have meant Enid could not afford the new mattresses, a recommendation to reduce the risk of cot deaths. Enid was probably incapable of raising a small child but a finding of killing your child must be very difficult to recover from.
The death of a child is a tragedy for the parents, but imagine not only has your baby died but you are arrested and interviewed as a murderer. A number of cases which were highly publicised were brought against mothers who were diagnosed as having Munchhausen’s by proxy. The condition was the brainchild of a pediatric Professor working in Leeds. He believed that some women harmed their children in order to get attention and sometimes went so far as to kill them. The child was usually a quite young baby and the cause of death was asphyxiation. These deaths were often given the name of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or more commonly ‘a cot death.’ The Professor’s theory was that one cot death was a tragedy, two was suspicious, three and it was murder. I was instructed to represent one such woman. I’ll call her Enid.
She had given birth to three children all of whom had died on and around their first birthday. Forensic pathologists had carried out post mortems and found nothing suspicious. Two were said to be ‘cot deaths’ and, one the result of a viral infection. Now she was expecting her fourth child and not surprisingly the local Social Services Department were anxious that this child should not meet the same fate. The practice at the time, and I assume still is, was for joint committees of social workers, police and health professional discussing problem cases. Enid’s was one of those. Someone made the decision to ask Enid to travel to Leeds and see the Professor. She agreed to do so.
Normally she would have been escorted to Leeds by one or two social workers. However, instead it was a social worker and a female police officer. On the train journey north, Enid admitted she had killed the three children. The three women returned to London and Enid was interviewed under caution, where she repeated the admission. She was charged with their murder and remanded to a secure psychiatric unit. When she saw a solicitor she denied murdering the children.
I had a QC leading me in this case and when we saw her at the hospital she again admitted the offences. I returned to Chambers and almost as soon as I arrived Enid was on the telephone saying it wasn’t true and she had not killed her babies. Normally when a client says they have committed the offence the barrister cannot represent them if they plead not guilty, but the circumstances here were unusual because of Enid’s fragile mental health and we decided to press on with her defence.
To be continued.
PS. For one week only Trials and Errors in free on Kindle. It contains some of the stories published on this blog and a few extra ones.
One of the most frequently asked questions of any lawyer is ‘How do you defend someone you know is guilty?’ The answer is it’s nothing to do with me. I’m just an advocate, only a judge and jury can decide someone is guilty. Of course, it’s not as simple as that. If a client tells me they are guilty, except in very particular circumstances, I could not defend them. If however they insist they are innocent, then no matter how strong the evidence is against them, the advocate’s duty is to put their case to the best of their ability.
Usually, if on the basis of the evidence you have, the case looks overwhelming, I would advise the client to plead guilty to the offence as doing so will probably result in him getting a less severe sentence. Sometimes that can result in the barrister or solicitor getting the sack. Very early on in my career, I learnt to be careful about the amount of pressure I put on a defendant who insisted he was innocent in the face of very convincing evidence.
The client was a juvenile and because of his age, the trial was to take place in the Juvenile Court. At that time, the prosecution, in this case, the Metropolitan Police Solicitors, were under no obligation to serve any of the witness statements. Usually, the police officer would provide a brief summary of the evidence to the lawyers involved. The charge against my client was one of arson. I was told that the fire had been very destructive but there had been no loss of life. The seat of the fire was in a community hall attached to a school and entry had been gained to the premises through the school kitchens, which joined the two buildings and were used by both. Whoever had gone into the hall had used a serving hatch and on the top edge of the glass window was a perfect set of fingerprints. Those fingerprints were my clients. He denied he had ever been in the kitchen. He was lying and the magistrates would have deduced the reason for the lie was to cover his guilt.
He was fifteen years of age and of good character. His parents were clearly caring and supportive. Not always the case with juvenile offenders. Because of the seriousness of the fire, I believed a custodial sentence was inevitable, but if he pleaded guilty he might get and detention centre order rather than be sent to the Crown Court for sentence and the real possibility of being sent for Borstal training. I tried to persuade him that he should admit the offence. He refused. His parents had also tried as had my instructing solicitor. All to no avail.
I started the trial with a heavy heart, convinced I was just going through the motions until the prosecuting lawyer called the forensic expert. Usually in cases of arson the expert gives evidence as to the seat of the fire and the method by which it was started. Typically some sort of accelerant is used petrol, paraffin or alcohol. The expert told the court the fire had started in a plastic ashtray on the bar but did not give evidence of any accelerant being used.
There is a rule of thumb that one never asks a question to which you don’t know the answer. I decided to take the risk.
‘Is it possible the fire started as a result of somebody leaving a lighted cigarette stub in the ashtray?’
‘Certainly. If someone had not stubbed out their cigarette properly, the plastic of the ashtray would melt and then ignite.’
The offence of arson require the prosecution to establish the fire was started deliberately and this they could no longer do. My client was acquitted and I was relieved my persuasion had failed.
Kings Cross in London in 1993 was a well known as a place to buy or sell drugs. In order to clean up the area the police began an operation known as Operation Welwyn. Undercover officers posed as buyers and when they were offered drugs the person selling was arrested and charged with offences under The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. They used video cameras in fixed positions and also in vans. Many people were arrested in the course of this operation and it resulted in a number of trials. There is a fine line when undercover officers make such a purchase between encouraging the crime and trapping a defendant, which is illegal, and simply taking advantage of the dealer’s willingness to supply the drugs.
My client, Angela was of mixed race and in her mid-twenties. She was charged with one offence of supplying cocaine in the form of crack. The police officers said they had bought cocaine from her. Angela was filmed meeting the two officers and going to a telephone booth. According to the officers they paid her for drugs and she handed them over when they gave her two twenty pound notes. That transfer of drugs and money was obscured by a large traffic sign pointing the way to Cambridge and The North. There was no question that it was anyone other than the defendant. She was clearly identifiable wearing a denim jacket and her long hair tied up with a brightly coloured ribbon.
Angela was arrested some time later. This was to avoid others being alerted to the ongoing operation. When she was interviewed she denied supplying drugs to the police officer but said she made a telephone call to another person who could have supplied the police woman with cocaine. If that was the truth then she would still have been guilty of the offence but on a different basis, although it raised the issue of entrapment. Legal argument on that point was resolved by the Crown agreeing that the jury could only return a verdict of guilty on the grounds that Angela had sold cocaine to the officers.
When the two police officers gave evidence they said they had spoken to Angela on the street and asked to buy drugs from her. She had suggested the deal took place in the telephone booth and they had followed her but had stood outside while she took the drugs out of her handbag. They had handed her two twenty pound notes in exchange for the crack. The numbers of the notes had been recorded, but none were found in Angela’s possession. The Crown’s explanation was she had spent it between the offence being committed and her arrest.
Although the traffic sign obscured not only the telephone booth but the two officers as well, I could follow their shadows as they crossed the pavement. At no time had they approached the telephone booth, instead, after they had spoken to Angela they had walked towards a pedestrian crossing where they became visible on the film. They were unable to explain their movements when I cross examined them.
The Judge trying the case became so interested that on his way home he drove to Kings Cross to see for himself the location of the traffic sign and the telephone booth. He summed up for an acquittal and Angela was found not guilty.
This story along with others appears in the very slim volume Trials and Errors.
I have just received the proof copy of a slim – anorexic actually – volume of tales from my Life at the Bar. It includes some of my blog posts and some new stories. The front cover shows the colonnades between Inner and Middle Temple built after WW2 when the building on that site, if my recollection is right it was called Fig Court, was destroyed along with Inner Temple Hall by enemy action.
There is also the first chapter of my novel Crucial Evidence.
The book is already available on Amazon without the final proof reading and will be available for your Kindle on 24th October. I hope you enjoy this little book.
Articled Clerks always get the worst jobs in the office. On my first day in the office amongst the files I was given was one very thick bundle of papers. It contained correspondence going back for about six years. Our clients owned a bungalow on the main road east out of Cleveleys, a small seaside town close to Blackpool Lancashire. The land had originally been farm land but strip development had taken place. The farmer who had sold off the plots of land had retained a strip wide enough for his farm machinery to get into his fields. But that had been many years before and his tractor was now too wide to get along the track. He maintained the owners of the bungalows on each side had planted hedges on his land which had matured and were now impeding his access.
Our clients disputed this and argued that the hedges were inside the boundaries. Among the papers were copies of the plans from their conveyance. Land in east Lancashire was not registered with the Land Registry at the time. I looked carefully at the plans but they were of very little assistance. They were endorsed with the phrase, ‘This plan is for the purposes of identification only and not of delineation.’ That meant they were not to scale, and anyway the thick red pencil line would have made it difficult to measure with any accuracy.
I dreaded telephone calls from our clients, made slightly worse because the wife’s voice was that of a tenor’s and I couldn’t tell which of them I was speaking too. Fortunately, the solicitor for the farmer thought the whole thing was hilarious and, in his view, incapable of solution. ‘My client will just bulldoze his way through. They’ll want to sue for the damage to their hedge and you’ll tell them that is not a good idea. Then it will all die down until the next time. Just put the file to the bottom of the pile and tell them you’re working on it.’
I wasn’t too happy with that. I wanted to make a good impression with my principal and with the clients, although I thought the farmer’s solicitor was probably right so, despite my misgivings, I took his advice. My salvation came in the form of Trevor, a rather chubby young man, who was the new articled clerk.
He had already been given a few files to work on when he came into my room to see if I needed any help. ‘Well, there is this,’ I said, handing him the dog eared bundle.
A couple of weeks later he came into the office looking very smug. ‘I’ve solved that boundary dispute,’ he said. ‘I went round, got the farmer there, together with our clients, and we pegged out the boundary.’
It was only a couple of days later I was driving along the road and as I passed our clients bungalow, I noticed a pile of white pegs dumped on the grass verge.
Back in the office, I told Trevor, not to bother with the bill and to put the file at the bottom of the pile.