Tag Archive | Crime

Life at the Bar – A question of tactics

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.

West London Magistrates Court

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.

Life at the Bar – The Man in the White Suit

I am not referring to the journalist, Martin Bell, who stood for Parliament some years ago but to a solicitor who had an office close to West London Magistrates Court. This was before it moved to being in the shadow of the Hammersmith Flyover. I had only just started working for another local solicitor’s practice as the second string advocate, when the outdoor clerk, a Welsh lady who liked a drink or two or may be three, told me I needed to meet Bob.  White-Two-button-Suit

‘He’s really good looking, and single,’ she said acknowledging my own status. And so he was, six feet tall, a mop of dark hair and a sonorous voice with just a trace of an accent I recognised as being like my own. He was one of the many Lancastrians who had moved to London hoping to make their fortune in the big city.

When the court doors opened in the morning, the outdoor clerk would dash across the road to see if any of our regular clients were in the cells, and to try and get our share of the unrepresented prisoners. She would then come back into the office and prepare a list of the cases we had to cover. There were two courtrooms in the building and I was meant to do the shorter list, usually with the less serious cases and the man who was the main advocate would do the more important ones. It never seemed to work out that way and I found myself covering most of the work in both courts, which brought me into contact with the ‘man in the white suit.’

Actually it wasn’t his usual choice of dress, he normally wore a grey or navy blue pinstripe, but sometimes in the summer and when he wanted to make a dramatic entrance into court, he wore white. I liked Bob, but quickly worked out that he was not the man for me; far too eccentric.

However we worked well together in the courtroom even though we were competitors for business. A long list of clients meant there was too little time to see them all before the stipendiary magistrate came into court. Bob and I learnt to work the list officer so that our cases were not listed consecutively and so allowing a little time to see a client who had not yet appeared.

Cases in the magistrates’ court can be very amusing, and West London had its quota of fun, often provided by the homeless men who lived on and around Shepherds Bush Green. They were usually brought before the court for being drunk and disorderly, and although we wouldn’t be paid both Bob and I often addressed the court on their behalf. One man, it was impossible to tell his age from his appearance, he was so unkempt in a dirty mac, torn green sweater and a once white shirt was before the court for stealing a tin of salmon. He was one of Bob’s clients and this was one of his white suit days. The contrast could not have been more striking.

The defendant pleaded guilty to the theft and Bob stood up to mitigate on his behalf. He was immediately interrupted by the Magistrate, ‘Your client has been in prison too many times. What am I going to do with him? Send him back for a tin of salmon?’

‘That’s exactly what I am asking you to do. The last time he was in custody, he got his teeth seen to. The upper jaw. He’d like to go back to get his lower ones sorted out. That’s why he stole the tin of salmon. He needs a sentence of a least three months for the prison service to sort that out,’ said Bob.  Chattering-Teeth-007

He got his three months. Whether he got his teeth sorted out, I don’t know because that winter he died of exposure, and it was me and Bob together with the list officer who organised a whip round to pay for his funeral.

 

Life at the Bar – The Stipendiary Magistrate

During my time in Blackpool I had only appeared in front of lay magistrates. Those upstanding members of the local community who the Lord Chancellor’s Department thought were fit and proper persons to dispense justice to their fellow citizens. They often lacked any real understanding of the law and sometimes struggled to assimilate the facts of a case, but I am sure they did their best. Often they had unqualified staff as court clerks who didn’t know the law either. That has all changed now and court clerks have to be qualified lawyers if they are advising the bench of magistrates on legal matters, and the justices of the peace are given much more thorough training.

My move to live in London, driven by the sexist behaviour in my home county and by my love of the theatre, brought me into contact with a different kind of JP, the stipendiary magistrate. They were a fearsome bunch and, at first, I was a little in awe of them. Over ninety per cent of all criminal cases are dealt with in the magistrates’ courts and the stipendiary magistrates, whether a solicitor or a barrister were much quicker at dealing with cases and expected those appearing in front  of them to be brief.

St. John Harmsworth sat at the court in Marlborough Street,  in the heart of the West End, next to the London Palladium and just across the road from Liberty’s. He was extremely punctual, Marlborough Street Magistrates Courtwalking briskly into court dressed in a pinstripe suit, a military tie of navy blue and dark red stripes and a fresh rose in his button hole. If he was strict in his interpretation of the law, he was also humane.

One morning I was sitting in court waiting for my case to be called on, when a fifty year old was brought into the dock. He had been charged with being drunk and disorderly. The arresting officer (they went to court then) stood in the witness box and said he had stopped the defendant as he been staggering on his feet on Oxford Street at about eight o’ clock that very morning.

‘I spoke to him to ask his name, Sir, and noticed his breath smelt of alcohol, his speech was slurred and he was unsteady on his feet, Sir,’ the policeman said. This was a formula all officers used when describing somebody as drunk.

The warrant officer, the man who controls the order the cases are called before the bench, moved forward and said, ‘He was only released from Pentonville this morning, Sir.’

‘What time were you released from custody?’ said St. John Harmsworth, addressing the man in the dock.           pentonville

‘Six, Sir.’

‘How did you manage to get drunk between six and eight?’

‘Well, your honour.’ (Defendants in the magistrates’ court frequently get the form of address wrong. Only Crown Court Judges are addressed as Your Honour.) ‘It’s my birthday and the lads in the kitchen at Pentonville brewed some hooch and we spent the night drinking.’

St. John Harmsworth looked at the charge sheet in front of him. ‘So it is. Well as it’s your birthday I’ll fine you five pounds or one day,’ he said. There was no need to explain to the defendant that t one day meant he was to stay in custody for the remainder of the court day. It was a common way of dealing with those whose offences were minor and means were limited.

As the prisoner was being led away the learned magistrate said to the warrant officer, ‘Release him as soon as he’s sobered up.’

In these changing times I was a little sad to see the court I had been to so often is now a boutique hotel.

Life at the Bar – A sack of potatoes and a bottle of Teepol

Not a murder, but still one of the most interesting cases I was involved in. The client, Max was a fisherman. He sailed in small boats out of Fleetwood, when there was still a fishing fleet in the north Lancashire town. The basis that these small trawlers worked on was called share fishing. The boat’s owners took the major share of the profits on the catch and the remainder was split between the rest of the sailors. On this trip the Goodwill had a crew of five. Max was the fishing skipper; the defacto captain of the ship. He wasn’t a certificated captain so there was on older man who was, but Max really ran the boat and directed where they would sail and where they would put the nets down. He was the man with the ‘nose’ for the shoals. Fishing Trawler

This particular night they were fishing in the Irish Sea. One of the crew was on watch and Max had gone to his bunk to sleep. The sea was running high and the small boat rolled and pitched. It was cold and the fire in the cabin had been lit. Suddenly the boat was hit by a large wave and the gas bottle in the galley, secured in place by a sack of potatoes and a bottle of Teepol came loose and rolled along the deck and into the cabin.

Max was woken as the gas from the bottle exploded. He grabbed his clothes and ran through a wall of fire onto the deck. The rest of the crew had already got the lifeboat over the side and they all jumped into it. They were in the life raft for three days before they were picked up by another boat and taken to the Isle of Man. Here Max was treated for the burns he had suffered as he dashed from the cabin. He needed extensive skin grafts to his face and hands. He was devastatingly charming despite being very disfigured.

He sued the boats owners for damages for the injuries he had sustained, on the basis they had failed to provide proper housing for the gas bottle in the galley. The owners denied liability saying they were not his employers and did not owe a duty of care to him or the rest of the crew. The judge disagreed and awarded Max substantial damages.

I had driven then to the final hearing, which took place in Chester, in my principal’s car which broke down on the way back. Fortunately my passengers were too elated to worry about the delay caused and waited patiently at the roadside until we were rescued b

Broadchurch Episodes 3 & 4

The series continues with heightened drama but the representation of the legal process is corrupted by the story line. broadchurch1

In episode 3 the prosecution call DC Miller,  the wife of the defendant, and while there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that; the law is that a wife is a competent witness against her husband, but she is not compellable.  What that means is that her evidence is capable of belief but if she declines to give evidence she cannot be forced to do so. In the circumstances where she is known to have assaulted her husband, I think most barristers would be reluctant to call her. She added very little to the issues for the jury.

Episode 4 has a number of glaring errors in the trial scenes. It is a long time since a witness was allowed to make a dock identification. In a real trial, if that was to happen, the defence would ask for the jury to leave the court and make an application for a retrial. Actually it makes Justine look incompetent as she allows the witness to deviate from her witness statement by asking if she recognised the man. There was no need for the question; the witness had given the evidence about seeing a man already, although what evidential value that had was difficult to understand. If the judge ruled that the trial should continue, cross-examination would be much more rigorous. The witness would have been asked about her previous statement, the time she made it and why she had left out the name of the man she saw. It is one of the common mistakes that a witness makes to say I told the police but they left it out. The police officer who took the statement would then be called and would inevitably say that the witness had not identified the person they saw and the defence can then assert that the witness is at best unreliable or a liar.

I did like the part where the defence silk says to her junior who is convinced their client is guilty, ‘Don’t say that. We never know for sure. He gets his defence.’ The sort of comment a real barrister would make to a pupil, particularly one who is described by her opponent as a rottweiler.

 

Broadchurch

I didn’t watch the first series, but the criticism about the courtroom drama in the current series has been such that I decided to catch up with the first two episodes with the benefit of the BBC i player I have now done that. Oh dear, they may have had a legal consultant but the script writer must have ignored any advice they were given. I know the fact that the Bar is a referral profession is Broadchurchinconvenient for drama, but the writer could have made a little more reference to reality. I cannot imagine any solicitor instructing someone who has not been in practice for three years ever; the law changes and the skills need to be kept up, never mind the question of a practising certificate.

Then the prosecuting barrister asks the police officer in the case to visit her at home to discuss his evidence about injuries to the defendant. The defendant’s wife appears to have been invited as well.  I know she is an important character in the plot, but surely a little more thought might have dealt with this issue in a more realistic way. Then she discusses with them the injuries and tells them they need to find a good reason for the assault on a prisoner. No decent lawyer would do that; she was almost telling them what to say

In the trial process, prosecuting counsel would not refer to the confession in opening the case to the jury and arguments around the issue of admissibility of a confession are made in the absence of the jury. Defence counsel did quote the correct sections of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, but that was the only bit that was right. Surely it would have been just as dramatic to have the legal argument in the courtroom and then switch to the family outside in the waiting area worrying about what was going on.

My main complaint is the idea that the prosecuting barrister is the bereaved family’s lawyer. Criminal Prosecution are taken on behalf of the state, ‘Regina v Miller,’ not the victim or their relatives. The way it has been portrayed is misleading to ordinary members of the public who may be involved as witnesses or where a family member is a victim of crime. Writers of popular series have in my view a responsibility to ensure viewers are not given a totally misleading impression of the way something as important as the criminal justice system works.

Life at the Bar – second murder case

I received the telephone call at about nine o’ clock in the evening. The police officer on the other end of the phone asked me if I could come to the station in Blackpool immediately. They had woman in custody and they thought she should speak to a solicitor. This was before the days of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act and asking any lawyer to see a prisoner before they were interviewed and charged was unusual.

Noahs Ark

Noahs Ark

‘It’s a serious case. She’s stabbed her husband and he’s in surgery at the moment. If he dies….’ His voice trailed off leaving me to deduce she might be charged with murder.

When I arrived at the police station in central Blackpool, I was shown into a cell where I saw Eleanor for the first time. She was in her late thirties, dressed in a tweed skirt and a thin blue sweater. Sitting upright in the edge of the concrete shelf that served as a bed, she was twisting and turning a white handkerchief in her hands. Her wedding ring caught the light from the single bulb.

‘Is there any news,’ she said.

I shook my head and said ‘No, not yet.’ And before she could say anything I sat down next to her and introduced myself.

‘Yes, the solicitor. They told me you were coming.’ She continued to turn the handkerchief over. ‘I didn’t mean to kill him.’

‘We don’t know that you have.’ I took hold of her hand.

‘We had such a row. He’d come in late the night before. Playing football. More likely down the pub. I’d had his dinner waiting for him since six. He said he didn’t want it. He went to work this morning, whistling away to himself. I thought I’ll show you. He came home at midday and I gave him the meal I’d prepared the previous night. What’s this he said?.I told him, it’s your dinner. He went mad and was swearing at me, then he picked up the plate and threw it at the wall. I went over and grabbed his arm. He shook me off and ran upstairs, pulled my clothes out of the wardrobe and starting ripping them. I tried to get hold of him but he pushed me away and went back downstairs. I followed and he told me to get out of the house. He opened the front door and tried to force me to leave. I told him I wasn’t going and ran into the kitchen. That’s where it happened. We were struggling, throwing pots and pans at each other. He was shouting at me to leave and I was screaming. I was backed up against the table and I reached back and the bread knife was there. I picked it up and thrust it at him.’

She began to sob. ‘That’s when the police officers rushed in and they took him away.’

I had been told that two off duty officers had been passing when they heard the sounds of a fight coming from the house. They’d rushed into the house and seeing Eleanor’s husband with the handle of a knife protruding out of his stomach, had carried him to their car and while one drove to the Hospital, the other held the knife in place and tried to staunch the flow of blood from the wound.

Eleanor continued to cry and I sat and held her hand. A police woman brought us cups of tea as we waited for news.  A little later another officer and came and gave us a couple of blankets.  I still had my coat, so I tucked one round her legs and the other over her shoulders. From time to time she still shivered. I pulled my coat around me. Eventually in the early hours of the morning, the officer who had summoned me to the police station, came into the cell..

‘He’s out of theatre and he’s going to live,’ he said.

Eleanor who had stood up when he came into the cell, sank back onto the bed, bent over and began to weep. I picked up the blanket and wrapped it round her again.

‘I think I’ll get matron. Perhaps she can give you something,’ the officer said. ‘Miss Barnes will want to go.’

‘I’ll see you tomorrow,’ I said.

Matron bustled in and took over. I left the cell with the officer and once away from the cell where I could not be overheard by Eleanor I said, ‘Will you charge her?’

‘Yes, Attempted murder. I assume you’ll be in court tomorrow.’

‘Yes.’ I said.

Eleanor was lucky. Not only did her husband survive the assault but after she pleaded guilty he pleaded with the judge for mercy and she was given a suspended sentence.

But I received no payment for the night I spent in the cells.

 

 

 

Eleanor was fortunate, her husband lived and what is more went to court to plead on her behalf

 

My Life at the Bar – First Murder Case

First Murder Case

The cell under the courtrooms at Blackpool was bare, the walls and floor the dull grey of unpainted concrete. There was no furniture. In the corner of the room crouched down, his head touching his knees, and rocking to and fro was the figure of my client, David W. He was dressed in a curious mix of ill-fitting clothes garnered from some unknown source; his own clothes having been taken for examination by forensic scientists. The door of the cell closed with the thud of heavy metal behind me and for a moment the rocking ceased as he looked in my direction. Blackpool

‘I loved her. Why would I kill her?’

‘Do you want to tell me about it?’ I said.

The rocking began again. As I waited I thought about David’s wife, Lynn, a thin anxious woman in her early twenties and known locally as the Mandie Queen, on account of her swallowing Mandrax tablets like they were sweets. Her body had been found three days ago lying naked on their bed in a rundown holiday flat on South Shore. The pathologist said she had died as a result of vagal inhibition when pressure was applied to her neck. That assault had resulted in the hyoid bone in her neck being fractured. Although her blood contained a high level of the drugs, they had not been the cause of death, indeed the level was insufficient to have killed her.

David continued to insist he had not murdered her. He said they had both smoked some cannabis and taken other illegally obtained drugs. Lynn had been totally out of it but was demanding he go out and get some food. He’d left her and gone to a local shop where he had bought some bread, ham and milk. When he returned to the flat she was lying on the bed asleep, but when he tried to rouse her he couldn’t. He felt for her pulse and then realised she wasn’t breathing. There was a stash of drugs in the flat, which he decided to get rid of before calling the police, but then he panicked and decided to run for it.

‘I loved her, why would I kill her?’ he repeated.

I didn’t tell him that I was aware he had been violent towards her in the past. Lynn had been to see me a few weeks previously, asking me to represent her in divorce proceedings. I had immediately told her I couldn’t do so as David was already my client, so I didn’t hear what she was complaining about, but a large bruise under her left eye told me all I needed to know.

I stood on the other side of the cell watching him rocking back and forth. It wasn’t really the image I had of a murderer. In my imagination they were tough, brutish, large men with snarling faces, a fairy tale thug, not this disturbed young man with a pale thin face and long dark curly hair who looked more like Prince Charming than a killer.

David maintained his plea of not guilty and the case was heard at Lancaster Assizes in the same court room where the Pendle witches were tried over four hundred years ago. The only issue in the trial was the cause of death, was she strangled or did she die of an overdose. The pathologist I had instructed took the view that the evidence of strangulation was weak, but when in giving evidence he accused the Home Office pathologist of breaking the hyoid bone in a clumsy dissection, the QC representing David advised him to plead guilty to manslaughter and he agreed to do so. He was sentenced to serve six years in prison, some of which he served at Parkhurst in the Isle of Wight, where his brother was serving a sentence for armed robbery.

A few years later the doctor we had instructed to give evidence about the effects of taking large quantities of Methaqualone, the active ingredient of Mandrax tablets sent me a paper published in a scientific journal which argued that the level of Methaqualone, in the kidneys was a better indication of poisoning than that in the blood stream. The levels in Lynn’s kidney was over the safe limit described in the paper.

Antiques Road Show

As the experts on the Antiques Road Show examine an item they always ask what the owner knows about the piece. I have a print I acquired some years ago whose provenance is a little risqué.  It’s a lithograph by the artist John Ward and I bought it from the manageress of the club where I played squash. She was a dark haired, dark eyed woman who not only managed all the bookings at the club, but also ran the bar. It was a very social place and I often stayed on after a game to gossip with the staff and other players. It was also a favourite watering hole for police officers from the local CID.

The manageress produced the picture and asked me if I was interested in purchasing it for quite a modest sum. I recognised it as one of the  Inns of Court and asked her how she had come by it. I was particularly concerned because the price she was asking was very low and I thought it might have been stolen. There were some shady characters drinking in the club. She reassured me that it was not stolen with the riposte that she wouldn’t have produced in front of a group of detectives who were drinking in the bar that night.. I could see the logic of her comment. ‘So’, I said, ‘How did you come by it?’

She told me that her then boyfriend was the manager of an ‘adult only’ club in Soho and some months before, there had been a police raid when the club was full. The clients had all made a hasty exit through the fire doors without stopping to collect any of the items they had left in the cloakroom. Over time most of the property had been collected, but the club had been left with a collection of umbrellas and this print. When the boyfriend was given the task of disposing of the picture he thought I might like it, as he knew I was a barrister.

I decided in the circumstances it was not the proceeds of a theft  and I would not be charged with handling stolen property. so I purchased the print. Grays Inn

For many years it hung in my office in Chambers and now is in my home;  it continues to  give me great pleasure. It shows the hall of Grays Inn, the Inn of which I am a member, as incidentally is the protagonist in my novel Crucial Evidence. The lithograph also makes me smile as I think it was left in that Soho club by some eminent judge too embarrassed to reclaim his piece of art.

The Fatal Step

This  is the working title of my new novel and so far I am about half way through the first draft. Some how the summer has not been conducive to writing – who wants to be stuck in front of a computer when the sun is shining outside. I think too, I am rather daunted by the task I have set myself. I didn’t think about it with Crucial Evidence. I’d started that as part of my dissertation for my MA and I just kept going until  I’d finished. Then I drafted and redrafted without thinking, each time telling myself that this time it would work and when I sent it to agents someone would love. They didn’t and I began to realize that it wasn’t my writing that was the real problem but the type of book I wanted to write. Also talking to agents at places like Winchester Writers’ Conference and at The London Book Fair I knew any publisher would want a series of novels and I didn’t want to be tied to writing a book a year. In the end I decided to publish  the book myself. In the process I’ve learnt at lot about writing and publishing, but that makes the mountain I have to climb much higher and harder than the first.  I know how long it takes and how difficult it can be.Old Bailey

But you have to begin somewhere so this is the first page of my second novel. It follows the career of barrister Cassie Hardman as she gets her first leading brief in a murder case.

As Cassie hurried along the driveway from Snaresbrook Crown Court towards the tube station, she turned on her mobile phone. Amongst the emails from fashion houses, department stores and restaurants, there was a message showing the subject matter as Paul Sadler. He had been the defendant in a rape trial, who she had successfully defended at the Old Bailey the week before last. She didn’t recognise the name of the sender, Malcolm Delaney. Normally she was very careful about opening emails from unknown people but it was from someone who knew about her involvement in the Sadler case. She clicked the message open and read, ‘Miss Hardman, I wanted to congratulate you on your representation of Mr Sadler. Your cross examination was very effective and your closing remarks were obviously persuasive. Clearly they carried the jury along, as you know from the verdict. I would like the opportunity of congratulating you in person, and would like to invite you to have lunch or dinner with me. We can arrange a time and place later. I look forward to hearing from you. Malcolm’

The email gave no clue as to how Malcolm Delaney, knew she had represented Paul Sadler or what Delaney’s connection to the case was. Was he a police officer, a member of the court staff or just a spectator from the public gallery? She knew there were a number who came regularly to watch the proceedings at the Bailey; the staff  described them as ‘groupies’ and she had been told by one of the ushers that some of them would ask which barristers were appearing in which court and make a point of watching their favourites’ cases. The wording of the message was a little old fashioned so perhaps it was one of them. The thought that one of the men from the gallery wanted to invite her to dinner amused her, but nothing more. 

Back in Chambers, the senior clerk, Jack, summoned her into his room and closed the door behind her. On his desk were four lever arch files, tied with pink tape, the front sheet bore the title R v David Winston Montgomery. Jack beamed at her. ‘I’ve managed to get you a leading brief in a murder at the Bailey. I assume you’ll want to apply for silk in a couple of years. This is a good one; you’re ready for it, even though it’s a murder. None of the silks want this. Scared they’ll get tarred with a racist brush, I dare say. A woman won’t of course. Judge Crabtree is in a bit of a panic thinking the defendant might want to represent himself. I said, to Colin in the list office, my Miss Hardman can handle it. Spoke to Tim. Didn’t take long to persuade him you could do it. So there you are a leading brief in a murder.’

Any comments to make about that so important first page.