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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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, walking 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.
‘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.