Last week I went to a screening of the play Prima Facie. Jodie Comer gave a fantastic performance in a terrific piece of theatre. But it was theatre. Was it true to life? Did it really reflect the reality of a trial for rape? I spent over thirty years working in the Criminal Justice System as a barrister and I defended and prosecuted a large number of rape trials. I would agree with the character ‘Tess’ that the legal profession is male-dominated, it’s too slow even more so now but… and it’s a big but, I thought it showed a misunderstanding of the trial process. I didn’t glorify my record in successful defences of men accused of rape, rather I worried that the complainant had been misled about what would happen in court. The purpose of a trial is not to find the truth but to establish the facts on the basis of evidence given in the courtroom. The jury decides on those facts and then measures them against the definition of the crime to arrive at a verdict either guilty or not guilty. Note, the defendant is not found to be innocent. I don’t believe that today the jury are are not aware of the arguments put forward in play that they are unduly influenced by outdated ideas about how a witness might behave. Indeed they are warned against making assumptions of that kind by the judge in his summing up. Introducing psychological evidence as to how a woman might behave, I use might deliberately, is trying to substitute his/her professional judgement for the evidence.
Nor do I accept that every complainant has the same reaction as ‘Tess’. Some are tearful, some defiant and there was one who treated it as a joke. Cross-examination about the differences in the accounts they have given at different stages of the process is part of trying to establish the facts, but they are rarely about trivial matters.
There was no mention of the defendant giving evidence. No defendant has to go into the witness box but on the facts as they were portrayed in the play, I would have urged the defendant to give his account of their relationship and to say he believed ‘Tess’ was consenting. However, it may have exposed what I thought were weaknesses in his account of the events. A skilled prosecutor would have torn his case to shreds. Had he failed to give evidence the judge would have directed the jury they could hold that against him.
This play is just one person’s interpretation of a trial for rape and the attempt to give it authenticity by the short interviews with Emily Maitlis shown before the play was, in my opinion, misleading. I have used my experience to write a novel called Reluctant Consent which demonstrates a more nuanced approach than Prima Facie
The third Cassie Hardman novel has been on sale for six months and is receiving some good reviews and mainly four stars. This is one of them.
‘If you like court room dramas, and I do, this is one for you. A story steeped in country house crime, and the shady world of antiques and art. A complex cast of characters weave a tale which is compelling, absorbing and only too believable. Heroine Cassie Hardman is on sparkling form. Much to be admired for her endless battles rising in a world of men who reek of public school entitlement, Cassie shines out for her kind heart and integrity. You’ll be rooting for her until the end. The London criminal fraternity is drawn with great authenticity, no doubt based on the author’s experiences as a criminal barrister. Her detailed knowledge lifts this legal thriller above the ordinary. Was fascinated, for example, to discover you could once sell stolen goods legally at Bermondsey antiques market.
But she also turns a light on the world of barristers and inns of court which is both illuminating and at times worrying.
The story twists and turns expertly but it was Cassie’s own problems and flaws which bring such humanity to the novel, and all the time with good humour.’
Just a quick thought as we move into 2019. In the last pages of her book, the Secret Barrister bemoans the lack of interest in the Criminal Justice System in comparison to the NHS or education.
Her book has been a best seller but in The Guardian, on Saturday the list of 100 bestsellers for the year was published and guess what ‘The Secret Barrister’ was nowhere to be seen but ‘This is Going to Hurt; secret diaries of a Junior Doctor’ by Adam Kay was number 2. Says it all really!
I would urge anyone who values freedom to read The Secret Barrister and for a more fictionalised account of how the Criminal Justice System works try either of my novel ‘Crucial Evidence’ or ‘Reluctant Consent.’ on Amazon.
Reluctant Consent my second novel is now available on Kindle. Here is a brief outline.
Barrister Cassie Hardman is being stalked by an unknown male. She doesn’t know why but there is some connection to the defendant Paul Sadler, who faced trial for rape.
Cassie struggles with the unwanted invasion into her life as she works on a murder trial – her most important case to date. Each communication forces her to relive her role in the Sadler trial.
How does a woman like Cassie cope with defending a man accused of rape?
Can she overcome the distress caused by her stalker and defend the accused in her current to the best of her ability?
Can the stalker be identified before she comes to any harm?
Perfect Remains by Helen Fields
The book opens with a body being burnt on a remote Highland mountain so that all that remains are the victim’s teeth and a fragment of silk. The body is believed to be that of a successful Edinburgh female lawyer. The murder is the first investigation lead by DI Luc Callanach who has just joined Police Scotland from Interpol. When a second woman is abducted, this time a cleric in the Church of Scotland, the investigation is hampered by a criminal profiler who insists they are searching for a sex offender
The identity of the killer and his motives are known throughout the book. It is the question of whether he can be identified and caught before he kills anyone else that creates the suspense.
The character of Callanach is well developed as we learn about his background, half Scottish, half French and the reason for his leaving France and Interpol. His relationship with his fellow officers is explored with real insight, particularly that with his fellow DI Ava Turner.
It is difficult to say more about the book without giving away the turning points in the story line. I certainly enjoyed reading it.
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.
The offence of going equipped to commit burglary doesn’t seem to feature in the courts these days, but as an articled clerk I was sent to sit behind Mark Carlisle on just such a case. The two defendants, both male, had been apprehended in one of the lanes in the countryside inland of Blackpool. The evidence against them consisted of observations by the police to whom they were well known and the various objects found inside their car, a grey Vauxhall, I think.
The offence took place on a summer’s evening when an observant police officer had seen the two men, Ken and Norman, driving along a narrow lane that led down towards the River Wyre. He knew it was a dead end, so he radioed for help and an unmarked car arrived. When the Vauxhall emerged from the lane and turned along the main road, the police care followed at a discrete distance. The car then turned down another of the lanes which went towards the River, another dead end. The police stayed on the main road keeping watch. This was repeated a third time, but this time the police followed and as it reached the entrance to a large house set in extensive grounds, they indicated the Vauxhall was to pull over.
Norman and Ken got out of the car and went to meet the officers. As the two policemen, DC Smith and DC McKie, approached Norman, he pulled his wallet from the back pocket of his trousers and began searching through it.
‘Here’s my driving licence and I’ve got insurance as well,’ Norman said, waving the pieces of paper under the DC Smith’s nose.
‘Thanks,’ said the officer, pushing away Norman’s arm. ‘Let’s have a look in the car shall we.’
All four men strode towards the car. ‘What you doing round here?’ DC McKie said. He rolled his r’s and looked straight at Ken, who dropped his gaze.
‘Looking for work. Been told some guy wanted a job on his roof,’ Ken said.
‘What’s this guy’s name then?’ McKie said.
‘Don’t know, just told where he lived.’
By this time they had all reached the vehicle and the two officers opened the boot. Inside was a bag of tools, spanners, screw drivers, a couple of hammers, and laid across the base the dark metal of a crowbar glinted in the low summer sun.
‘Doing a roof were we; with a crowbar.’ McKie wasn’t expecting an answer.
Norman spluttered. ‘Yes, guv. We were going to see this guy about some work.’
‘Where does he live, this bloke you were going to see?’ Smith said, as he opened the front passenger door.
On the floor was a piece of paper torn from a reporter’s notepad, the type anyone can buy in WH Smith’s. ‘We had a map…’ Ken pushed past the officer, leant into the vehicle and picked up the sheet of paper. ‘We’d met this guy in the pub. Said he had a few jobs we could do and he drew this map of where his house was. Here, see.’ He thrust the piece of paper into DC Smith’s hand.
The map had been drawn by an inexpert hand, but it clearly showed a lane of the main Cleveleys to Singleton Road. The drawing showed two or three houses along a twisting lane that led down to towards the River.
DC Smith sucked his teeth as he contemplated whether to arrest the two men. He didn’t believe a word they were saying, but with a good defence lawyer they would probably be acquitted. Was it worth the paperwork involved; whatever they were up to they had been stopped in their tracks.
‘Well not sure…’ he said, but was interrupted by DC McKie who was holding a book in his hand.
‘What’s this. A copy of Who’s Who. Now what would you be wanting with this then?’
They were arrested and charged with going equipped with a crow bar, spanners, various tools and a copy of Who’s Who. Despite Mr Carlisle best endeavours both men were convicted.