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.