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.