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believe that today the jury are are not aware of the arguments put forward in play that they are unduly influenced by outdated ideas about how a witness might behave.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
Trials, Errors, and Misdemeanors
I began this blog by writing about the cases in which I had played a role either as an articled clerk, then a solicitor and for over twenty-five years as a barrister. Although mostly I worked in the criminal courts -‘defending the indefensible’ I did some cases in the family court and a few cases in the High Court.
I have recently published a number of these anecdotes in a memoir called Trials, Errors, and Misdemeanors. It is available as an e-book and a paperback on Amazon. From tomorrow 7th June to 12th June the e-book is available free.
Reluctant Consent will be available for 99p from 11th to 14th March as an ebook on Kindle.
Check out the five star reviews it has already.
The Secret Barrister
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.
Life at the Bar – The Drop Room
Custody disputes are distressing. There are no winners and the children are usually the ones who suffer most. Today courts do their best to ensure that no child is upset by the proceedings and very few attend court, their views being placed before the Judge by a social worker. But, at the start of my career, contested custody cases were heard by the High Court Judge when he came on circuit.
My client, Sarah, was disputing the custody of her two children, a boy of ten and a girl of eight. Since the divorce, they had been living with their father. He worked and they spent a great deal of time with their grandparents, neither of whom enjoyed the best of health. That was the basis for Sarah’s claim for custody of her children.
She was a strange character. A tall blond who always wore dark glasses because, she claimed, of some medical condition. This was her second divorce, although to be fair to her, her first marriage had not lasted very long and there were no children. She had left her first husband for the man who she then married and who was the father of the two children. This marriage had lasted twelve years, but then she had found another man, left her husband and the children. The new relationship was over very quickly and now she wanted her children back. I, rather cynically, thought she was more interested in the maintenance than their welfare.
When the court’s children’s officer spoke to the children they said they wanted to tell the judge they wished to stay with their Dad. I advised Sarah that she should withdraw her application for custody as I believed the Judge would not go against their wishes. The lapse of time – they had been with their father for over a year – was against her as well. She insisted the hearing should go ahead as she thought the children were being pressurised by their father.
The hearing was at Lancaster Assizes. The High Court Judge was on circuit and was sitting in the courtroom inside the Castle. This case would not be heard in that room but in the judge’s chambers. We waited outside the room in a narrow corridor, all of us crushed together. The children had been brought by the social worker. They ignored their mother’s smiles.
The door was opened by a very tall slender young man with lank fair hair dressed in a morning suit. He stood to one side and waved us into the room. He introduced the case in a rather high pitched voice. I had to suppress a smile at the thought that his voice hadn’t broken. The judge was sitting at his desk in the centre of the room. His robes lay over a chair and his wig on the desk. The room was quite large with windows that overlooked the Priory Church and a small square. One of those windows was the size of a door with a small step in front of it.
‘Come and stand here,’ the Judge said to the two children. They inched forward, eyes wide open.
‘Now, do you know what this room is called?’
They shook their heads, their eyes fixed on the Judge.
‘It’s called the Drop Room. And can you guess why it’s called that?’
Again they shook their heads. ‘Oh no.’ I thought. I knew what he was about to say.
‘You see that window there?’
This time they nodded but their eyes were even wider and they stared at the window.
‘You see it’s got a step up?’
Their faces were rigid and they only tipped their heads down.
‘They used to hang people from there. Pushed them out of the window with a rope round their necks.’
The children’s faces were white.
‘Well that’s not going to happen to you. Now, I understand you want to tell me about where you want to live.’
The little boy stuttered, ‘With Dad.’
The Judge looked at the girl. ‘And you?’
She took her brother’s hand and nodded, but couldn’t speak.
Not surprisingly the Judge awarded custody of the two traumatised children to the father.
Life at the Bar – Defending the Guilty
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.
Life at the Bar – Chasing Shadows
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.
Life at the Bar – 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.
Life at the Bar – Boundary Disputes
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.
Life at the Bar – Inquisitive jury
What happens when one of the jury decides to investigate issues in a trial? I was defending a man charged with importing a Class A drug, namely cocaine. The defendant whose name was ‘Gray’ had arrived in the UK from Jamaica via Amsterdam. The car that collected him from Gatwick was followed through the streets of south London by detectives in an unmarked police car. They claimed a package had been thrown from the nearside front window of the car and they had radioed for assistance before stopping the vehicle. The occupants were asked to get out and my client ran off. He didn’t get very far before he was arrested and searched. Nothing incriminating was found on him nor in the vehicle.
A search began to find the item thrown from the car. There was some difficulty in locating anything that fitted the description of the item. My client disputed he had thrown anything away although he said he might have dropped the packaging of some food out of the passenger window. Not surprisingly the police found plenty of that. After a thorough search of the area, a young police officer found a small parcel on the pavement of a nearby road. The difficulty for the prosecution was that the parcel was not found on the route the car had taken, nor close to where my client had run. In his defence, I relied on a set of plans of the area and cross examined the detectives as to which streets the car had been driven along and which ones my client had run along. No police officer was able to say they had seen anything dropped by the defendant as he ran away.
When the officer who had found the package was called he gave the name of the street in which he had found the package and he identified it on the plans. He relied for his evidence on notes he had made as soon as he returned to the police station, as he was entitled to do. I got him to mark the map and asked the jury to do the same on their copies. His explanation for the package not being in the road the defendant had run along was that he must have thrown it over the garden walls.
The next day one of the jurors handed a note for the Judge to the usher. He had been to look at the scene and he judged it was impossible to throw anything from one street to the other. The Judge was very annoyed because the only evidence a jury can take into account is that which they have heard in court. He had two options. The first was to abort the trial and start again with a different jury, or allow all the jury the opportunity to look at the location. He chose the latter. We all had to wait until the afternoon before a coach could be arranged to take the jury and a car to take the Judge. Counsel and the police officer had to make their own way there. My recollection is that I walked and still arrived before the coach. When the young police officer saw the street he had named, his mouth fell open as he realised he had made a terrible mistake. The Judge was furious.
Had the defendant been in possession of the drugs or was it a plant by the police? The jury came to the conclusion they couldn’t be sure of the defendant’s guilt and acquitted him. I’m sure that police officer would never make the same mistake again.
There was another feature of the case that makes it stick in my memory. ‘Gray’ was a professional musician and claimed to have played with Bob Marley.