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.
When I began my career at the Bar, I was instructed to prosecute a large number of cases of shoplifting for some of the large department stores in Oxford Street, London. The defendants were usually women and the items they stole ranged from expensive scarves to pairs of knickers. Often the women concerned were suffering from depression or had other problems and the thefts were largely a cry for help. They would appear at Marlborough Street Magistrates Court usually pleading guilty so that all I had to do was open the facts to the Magistrate. I would have about six or seven of these cases on each occasions and I always dreaded getting them mixed up and in outlining the facts would say the defendant had stolen six pairs of knickers and two bras instead of two pairs of knickers and six bras.
Later on I found myself representing a group of five young women for whom stealing from stores was a way of life. The five were sisters called Duff and, not surprisingly with that name, the family were Scottish by origin. They were travellers, moving from place to place following the horse fairs around the country. When I came to meet them they were living in the Buckinghamshire town of High Wycombe and had been there for several years after their father had an accident. He had tried to park the car and the caravan he was towing, by reversing into a lay by. As he did so the back of the caravan hit a concrete lamp standard. Mr Duff got out of the car to check the rear of his caravan at which point the lamp standard broke and part of it fell on to him. He did not survive.
I first became involved with the family when the partner of one of them was facing a charge of assault. The trial took place at Aylesbury Crown Court, a rather shabby building with inadequate facilities. At the end of one of lunchtime adjournments, I needed to visit the toilet before the afternoon session began. The only toilets female members of the Bar could sue were shared with members of the public. When I went into one of the cubicles I found a collection of clothing all with their price tags attached, clearly stolen from the local branch of Marks and Spencer. I spoke to the usher and she called a police officer who took one look at them, his eyes rolled upwards and he said. ‘Oh, the Duff sisters.’
Of course there was no evidence to link the clothes to any of the young women, only their reputation – they were banned from every Marks and Spencer’s store in the UK.
But that was just the beginning of my contact with these charming thieves.
More next week.
When I was still employed as a solicitor, West London Magistrates’ Court was in Southcombe Street W14; a redbrick building with an impressive entrance in white stone. On the floor, as you entered was a mosaic of the Metropolitan Police crest, a reminder that this had been called a police court when it first opened. The name may have been changed, but the court was still run by police officers. They organised the list of defendants and had an office where they collected the fines imposed by the magistrates. Solicitors were allowed into the cell area to take instructions from their clients and that also gave access to the small room at the back of a waiting area where the matron dispensed cups of tea for a small sum. It was here that, if you had made friends with the local CID you would be given a brief outline of the evidence against a client. There was no practice of serving statements in cases that were to be heard by the magistrates. Only if the case was being committed to the Crown Court would a lawyer get to see the evidence against the defendant.
One of the warrant officers, a man known as Jock, was a caricature of a Scotsman, quite tall, balding with a fringe of red hair and a ferocious temper. His role was to run the list for the court. When a defendant arrived at the courthouse, whether on bail or brought by the prison van, they were ticked off on the sheets kept by the warrant officer. A defendant’s lawyer would, after seeing his client, tell the officer what application he would be making to the Magistrate. The policeman would then decide the order in which cases would be called, usually depending on the kind of application. Adjournments where there were no applications usually went first, then applications for bail and pleas in mitigation were left to the end. The solicitors appearing in the case before the magistrate were always keen to get their cases on as soon as possible; there was always more work to be done in the office, or another court to attend.
Jock tended to favour local solicitors when deciding on what order to call cases into court, barristers and out of area solicitors were usually put to the back. However, if for some reason you offended him, your case would be put down the list. It was often difficult to know what you had done to upset him. Not being deferential enough was perhaps the most common offence, but there were others. I soon learnt that the best way of getting my cases on first was to make sure I upset him as early as possible. My cases would go to the bottom of the list, but by the time the hearing began, I could guarantee that other lawyers would also have committed some error and their cases too would be transferred to the bottom and as they did so, my clients would get nearer the top. Just a question of tactics.