We’re all used to watching gritty TV dramas about the crown court with bewigged barristers, mumbling judges and gullible juries. These higher courts are familiar to us and if we were actually to visit them, we would recognise the courtroom (‘Not as good as in Kavanagh’) the waiting area (‘Tosh from The Bill was in one a bit like this last week’) and the formalities (‘It’s just the same as in Rumpole’), but the magistrates’ court is different. It is the place where summary justice is dispensed. If the offence you have committed is not serious enough to merit a trip to the crown court, and the vast majority of offences are not, the magistrates’ court is where your case will be heard. In fact the great majority of cases are dealt with by magistrates. This means that either three lay people or one professional magistrate (a stipendiary or ‘stipe’, as the lawyers call them) listen to your case, decide whether it is proven or not and pass sentence. This is where I am today.
I am a barrister but I don’t wear my wig or gown, my wing-collar or my clerical bands. Solicitors have rights of audience in the magistrates’ court so in theory the different castes of lawyer are indistinguishable from each other when appearing in this forum. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Members of the Bar here are conspicuous by their three-piece pin-stripe suits, braces, shirts with detachable day collars, cuff-links and the fact that, as I do, they stand with their briefs – furled papers bound with red ribbon – under their arms or close against their chests. The solicitors, in contrast, wear off-the-peg double-breasted suits and keep their case papers in lever-arch files.
Having arrived in chambers this morning, one of my clerks has asked me to represent a client I know nothing about, on an unknown charge at an unspecified stage in the proceedings. In my chambers this is called a ‘scramble’. Although it may evoke heroic images of young men flying off to do battle with the forces of evil, the reality, as I’m sure it was for Battle of Britain pilots, is entirely different.
I make my way along the corridor, full of faux-Victorian prints and law reports, to the clerks’ room. I open the door and walk in. The four clerks are chatting together. They stop talking. The chief clerk looks up from his PC monitor, and stares. His flesh strains out of the neck of his tailored shirt, creating a curious goitre-like effect.
‘Mr Upton,’ he says with enforced deference and utter contempt, like an RSM addressing a new subaltern. ‘Go to – Street. Apply the usual. Client’s name is Mr XX.’
This is all I am told. ‘Apply the usual’ means apply for legal aid and if the client is in custody, apply for bail as well. Contrary to all the press reports of fat cats, young criminal law barristers make very little money. I have been paid £400 in five months of work. For many appearances I will not be paid at all and I cannot complain for fear of upsetting solicitors and my clerks, who determine whether I work or not. Unscrupulous solicitors know what they can get away with and will take a cut from my fee or occasionally not pay at all. This sounds like a bad business to be in, does it not? Yet hundreds of young barristers endure it every day for months and years: perhaps because they see it as a rite of passage and perhaps because their common sense exists in inverse proportion to their sense of self-importance.
By the time I arrive in court, hit as I enter by the smell of floor polish, on the one hand, and dope seeping through the skin, on the other, lawyers and punters are already milling around the waiting area. I have been to see the prosecutor in the CPS room, which is in a part of the building separate from the courtrooms, but the file on my client has not yet arrived. I look around the interior of this dreary municipal building with its stone floors and wood-panelled walls. Benches run along two sides of the waiting area and facing the main entrance are the doors to the courts themselves. There are no windows in the building and the only source of natural light comes from one skylight.
The vast majority of defendants in this as in any of the other inner-city London courts, are young white and black men who wear Tommy Hilfiger jackets and Timberland boots. Incongruous in the midst of the homeboys and standing in the middle of the concourse is a middle-aged white woman wearing a smart tweed coat and clutching a wicker basket. Unable to decide in which direction she should be going, she is performing a kind of pirouette: turning and pausing, turning then pausing. Eventually, like a compass needle settling on magnetic North, she quivers to a halt and scurries for the exit.
The court ushers and list-callers, underlings in the Byzantine hierarchy of the Inner London Magistrates’ Court Service, unlock the courtrooms and the lawyers and unrepresented defendants swarm around them to have their names taken. Cases are heard in the magistrates’ court on a first-come, first-served basis that bears no relation to the neat computer print-outs that are displayed in glass cases next to the doors of each courtroom.
‘I’m Mr – of Counsel and I’m representing Mr – and we are ready,’ a barrister brays, and the usher, usually a woman, ticks off the case on her list and adds a number beside it: No. 1 means you are first on, No. 35 that you might as well come back after lunch. In the course of this transaction the young buck will often take the opportunity – and in many cases it’s an absolute necessity – to flirt with the ushers, who in their turn will invariably encourage this behaviour. It may be their hair, their smile or their dress (‘Is it new?’ ‘No? Looks it, though’) that is remarked on. And the most persuasive suitor will find his case shooting up the rankings. Unfortunately, as my client is not here, all I can do is watch the bees gather around the honeypot. I will have to wait a long time for my case to be called.
I sit down to wait on a seat next to the mother and girlfriend of a defendant who is being brought over from Brixton Prison. Bored with each other’s company and because they think I might have some idea why the van coming from the prison has been delayed, they are happy to talk to me. As they unload their catalogue of complaints, I quickly discover that hell hath no fury like a defendant’s loved ones who feel that they are being inconvenienced by the system. A clerk emerges from one of the courts and makes an announcement about the van, apologising and asking for patience. There is an air of discontent about the place, which is suddenly replaced by something else. A whisper travels around the waiting area. Something is up. Irritability imperceptibly mutates into curiosity.
It soon becomes clear that everyone’s attention is focused on a group standing in the far corner. On inspection, it appears that there is not just one group but two. The nucleus of each of these separate cells is a person with blond hair. Both are under five feet tall. One is a woman in her forties wearing a pink blouson bomber jacket with a Hundred and One Dalmatians logo on the back and purple crushed velvet culottes. She has an aquiline nose and depressed cheekbones.
The other is a man in his twenties. He wears a black puffa jacket fastened up to his chin and jeans which are several sizes too large for him. He wears a black woollen hat. I am startled when I see his face, for he has the same curved nose and indented cheekbones. The man is agitated. He keeps making as if to talk to the woman in the other group and then stopping himself. Going and then stopping, going and stopping. He is holding a plastic carrier bag whose handle he twists and untwists. The women next to me are enthralled. The mother has been the recipient of certain information.
‘Incest,’ she tells me. ‘He’s having it off with his mum. He’s having it off with her,’ and she points from the woman in the pink jacket to the younger man in the black hat. In all the corners of the court, clients are telling their lawyers the news. ‘Apparently,’ she continues, ‘they were separated a while ago, met up again and now look what’s happened.’ The three of us laugh, not loudly, but just enough to let everyone know that we, too, are in on the joke.
The first case is being called in our courtroom and I decide to go in and see which magistrate is sitting. Entering the courtroom itself is a little like going into a church; the atmosphere is one of adrenaline-tinged reverence. If the magistrate is sitting, you are supposed to bow as you enter the courtroom and then do the same as you leave. Defendants never bow unless they’ve been acquitted, court staff do so occasionally when they remember, and young, ambitious barristers full of the mysticism of the Inns of Court bow slowly and low and unctuously.
These are strange times for the young men and women who are now experiencing the fag-end of an order unchallenged for centuries. Along with members of the Armed Forces, we are the last participants in a peculiarly English religion, which has made class distinction the central tenet of its faith. Now, the edifice is crumbling, for while its sacred rites are still practised – from the major (public school and Oxbridge) to the minor (tailored suits and ordering the right wine) – slowly and unsurely the profession is admitting those from backgrounds other than the strictly upper middle class. The new entrants, it must be said, have continued enthusiastically to embrace the old trappings, but no matter how much they may want to, they can no longer wholly decipher or truly live the system. In the meantime a powerful rearguard action continues to be fought. At the beginning of a new millennium, there are barristers in their early twenties who still follow the Bar convention of refusing to shake hands, the reason for this being, they will tell you, that the barrister is a gentleman and therefore does not need to proffer his hand to show that he is not carrying a weapon.
Similarly, although it is no longer strictly necessary to dine in one of the four Inns of Court on 18 separate occasions, in order to qualify into the profession, these evenings, which seduce with a brief taste of old establishment opulence, are still in great demand. The medieval hall, the light flickering off oil paintings, the toasts to ‘Domus’ by Master Junior, all serve to reinforce the impression in the lucky diner that he is one of a people set apart.
As I enter the courtroom (and bow), the stipendiary strides in from his separate entrance. He is angry because he has been kept waiting for ten minutes. He is a lanky, donnish-looking man with steel-framed spectacles and a skew-whiff tie. The clerk of the court sits in front of him, expertly manipulating files, charts and legal texts while keeping up a continuous stream of conversation with him. On the row directly in front of the clerk sit the defence lawyers who, moments ago, were shouting for and at their clients in the market-hall atmosphere of the waiting area. Now they vie with each other to catch the eye of the magistrate and create the first good impression of the morning. As he walks towards his seat which is on the dais, under a large embossed royal coat of arms, the prosecutor barges into court carrying two overloaded hold-alls full of files and squeezes onto a bench to the side of the clerk.
Another functionary, who has held the door open for the dispenser of the Queen’s Justice bellows, ‘Court, rise!’ in his best parade-ground voice. All the lawyers spring to their feet. But the clerk notices that the public gallery at the back of the courtroom has not risen. ‘Stand up in the public gallery!’ she shouts, and the defendants waiting there for their cases to be called do so.
The magistrate pulls out his chair and stands for a moment between it and his desk as if he were going to say grace.
‘Good morning,’ he says to the clerk and the lawyers like a kindly classics master.
‘Good morning,’ they chorus back, trying to make good impression number two. The clerk’s ‘good morning’ lingers longer and more fondly than anyone else’s. She beams at the magistrate, who beams back at her. Then he sits down heavily.
‘Why oh why am I sitting so late this morning?’ he says to no one in particular. Then he nods to the list-caller who, referring to her clipboard, calls the first case of the morning.
‘Numbers 12 to 14 on your list, Mr –. He appears and is represented by Mr –.’ At the first mention of his name, the lawyer, who has been crouching like a sprinter in the blocks, explodes into a standing position.
‘Good morning, sir. I represent Mr –.’
‘Good morning, Mr –,’ replies the magistrate and now the formalities are over. As the defendant makes his way into the dock from the public gallery, I exit backwards through the swing doors bowing and retreating at the same time like a wine waiter who’s just been given an enormous tip.
Outside, my new acquaintances are talking animatedly about the two small figures in the corner. Incest is a very rare offence to come before the courts, as you might imagine. I fetch my practitioner’s manual from my rucksack and look it up. I read that a prosecution for incest can only be brought with the prior consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions and in most cases carries a maximum sentence of seven years’ imprisonment. The offence can only be tried at a crown court, so they are here today for a preliminary hearing of some description. I read that while a man may have sex legally with his grandmother, a woman may not sleep with her father’s father, and then I come across an evidential term concerning the offence: ‘Evidence of the pre-existence of sexual passion is admissible.’ The pre-existence of sexual passion. The phrase conjures up a terrible inevitability and I ask the two women whether they know the Oedipus story. They look at me blankly before turning their attention back to the man and his mother.
Standing with the man are a white man and woman. Both are smartly but casually dressed in the manner of the caring professions. He has a fashionable long-sideburned haircut, while she sports a bob and dangly earrings. They engage in earnest debate with him while his eyes flit from them to his mother. They are social workers and they seem to be having a difficult time trying to calm him down.
His mother has a very different set of seconds in her corner. Two large black men stand on either side of her. They are both dressed in sober suits, have close-cropped hair and a seemingly far more authoritarian approach to their charge. They issue commands in deep tones and she nods or shakes her head meekly. I ask my companions, who have been talking to others in the waiting area, who these two are.
‘They’re members of her church.’
‘Yes, a spi-rit-ua-list church,’ the younger woman replies, saying the word disjointedly and with some pleasure, the syllables emerging as if they were eggs being produced from her mouth by a magician. And then I see him.
As I listen to her I watch with a growing sense of dismay a thin figure in a long maroon overcoat like a cape, and a deerstalker hat, pacing up and down the waiting area. I know this is my client. He is clearly very agitated, taking tiny paces as if he’s measuring the length of the area with his feet, while drawing on a cigarette: Sherlock Holmes on speed.
I straighten my tie and call out, ‘Are you Mr XX?’, hoping that the call will remain unanswered, as I have lost the taste for the fight, having waited so long and become so comfortable in inactivity. The figure turns on his heel, pulling on the fag.
‘Hello yes, hello yes.’ He speaks with a gruff London accent and breaks into a peculiar half-running, half-shuffling gait to come over to meet me. I try to adopt a tone of breezy professionalism with a hint of streetwise which, as ever, comes out as middle-class softie with a touch of tosser.
‘Morning, Mr XX, I’m your brief.’
‘Tell you why I’m late. Tell you why. Got up at six. Thought if I set off now I’ll get to court for seven. Went back to bed and here I am, yeah.’ He puffs on the butt end of the cigarette, looks me askance and adds: ‘And you can tell that to the court, yeah.’
The two women stare at him. ‘Got a fag? Got a fag?’ he asks them. They turn away with expressions of disdain on their faces.
Mr XX has a wet-look perm that would not have disgraced a 1970s footballer and the most pronounced nervous tic I have ever seen, his jaw shooting from one side of his face to the other as if he were constantly being punched on it.
‘Come on, let’s sit over here and talk,’ I say to him and he follows me to an empty row of seats, with his peculiar gait like the tripping run-up of a diabolic spin-bowler.
‘All right, Guv,’ he says, staring around for somebody to ponce a cigarette off.
I do not have to ask Mr XX whether he is familiar with the court system. He has that ease of being within the court precincts that only those with a certain amount of intimacy with the criminal justice system possess.
‘What stage are we at?’ I ask him.
‘’Bout the third appearance.’
‘What’s it for?’
‘Dipping.’ This is slang for pickpocketing. ‘I’m going not guilty, going not guilty.’
‘So we can enter a plea today.’
‘I’m not saying that. I’m just going not guilty.’ He begins to twitch with increasing rapidity. ‘Need a cigarette, Guv, yeah.’ And then suddenly with the hard steel of anger plating his words: ‘Do you understand that?’ He leaps from his seat having seen a security guard enter the waiting area. ‘Guv, Guv have you got a fag?’ I follow him.
‘Not. Now. I need,’ he pauses and twitches, adjusts his deerstalker and tosses his locks. ‘I need. A. Fag. Do you understand?’
‘All I need to know is how you’re going to plead,’ I respond.
‘Not guilty, not guilty yeah.’
‘Thank you.’ He lopes off down the corridor towards the exit, and hoping that is the last I’ll see of him, I walk past the mother and the son and the social workers and the spiritualists and the two women waiting for the Brixton van, into court.
The magistrate is sentencing an unrepresented defendant who has pleaded guilty to drink driving.
‘And do you have anything to say for yourself?’ he says in the reasonable tone of one who knows that he is all-powerful. The defendant he addresses is the thin, middle-aged lady I saw waiting outside court earlier in the morning. She has removed her overcoat to reveal a matching tweed skirt and light blue cardigan. Her ash-blonde hair is neatly bobbed. Her coat and her wicker basket, the fronds of some decorative fern peeping from underneath a tea towel, rest beside the dock. Her bulbous eyes and the whiteness of her knuckles as she grips the dock rail give her the appearance of a vast dormouse about to take a ride on a rollercoaster. Her voice shakes.
‘Well I’ve told you, I’m a garden consultant,’ she says hesitantly. ‘And florist.’ She speaks in a taut, dry, middle-class voice and the magistrate nods back sympathetically. ‘I went out for dinner with clients and I . . . well there is no real excuse. I didn’t intend to drive.’
‘Yes, I see,’ says the magistrate, studying her delicate features and their disturbing interplay with her outsized eyes. Perhaps they have had a hypnotic effect on him because it is some moments before he looks up from his register and utters a vague, melancholic, quizzical, ‘Yes?’, for all the world the master waiting for the slowest boy in class to give him the pluperfect subjunctive of esse.
‘My husband left me,’ she replies. This is too much for the magistrate. He keeps his eyes cast down and the clerk decides that it is time to intervene and save her master any further pain.
‘Could you tell me anything about the circumstances that day, Mrs W.?’ Mrs W. looks at the clerk with disdain. Her eyes flash the message: I do business with the organ-grinder, not his monkey.
‘I was drinking Kir Royales,’ she says.
‘Do you have anything else to tell me?’ counters the clerk, tightening the screw.
‘Yes. That’s champagne and cassis,’ says the dormouse in a last gasp attempt to impose her social superiority on the proceedings. Her voice breaks, tears cascade down her cheeks and she struggles to deal with a tsunami of snot that erupts from her nose.
‘Thank you, Mrs W.,’ the clerk replies in triumph and no doubt because she is so busy, overlooks the box of tissues lying on her desk.
I leave the courtroom.
Mr XX is back, pacing the floor, cigarette in hand. He has thrown his hat onto a seat and he murmurs to himself as he twitches and smokes. He is ashen-coloured and his hair is flecked with grey. He asks me my name and I tell him.
‘I want you to change my bail, John. Change it. No more reporting, yeah.’ Reporting at a police station is a common bail condition imposed by the courts.
‘Will you accept anything else?’
‘Anything, John, yeah. Just lift that one. Get that one done for me.’ The list-caller pops her head around the door.
‘Mr XX, are you ready?’ ‘Let’s do it, let’s do it,’ he says, heading for the entrance to the court. In a series of dextrous and well-practised movements, he removes his deerstalker and cape and enters the dock nodding sagely to the magistrate. I slide into the front bench which is now empty. I have not had a chance to speak to the prosecutor. Mr XX’s case number is called out and I roar my good mornings to the magistrate.
‘Are we ready to make progress today?’ asks the clerk. Make progress, to hit targets and fulfil budgets, make progress.
‘We are, yes,’ I say from the same peculiar semi-standing position you see ministers adopt when they refer their honourable friends to replies given some moments ago. The prosecutor leans towards me.
‘Is he going to plead?’ he whispers, meaning is Mr XX going to plead guilty today, which would obviously make everybody’s life (apart from Mr XX’s) that much easier. I shake my head and from one of the voluminous hold-alls appears a white file and from the white file comes a bundle of statements, a copy of the charge sheet and Mr XX’s previous convictions. I scan these first. Mr XX has innumerable convictions for theft and for drug-related offences.
The prosecutor stands and says that if the plea is not guilty the Crown will need two weeks to review the case against Mr XX in the light of some witness difficulties.
‘Well, let’s hear something about it then,’ says the magistrate, pushing his hair down across his head in a rather Hitlerian manner.
The prosecutor outlines the facts of the case. Mr XX is accused of stealing a purse from an American tourist in a fast food restaurant in Notting Hill. If the evidence against Mr XX is half as compelling as the prosecutor makes it out to be in his summary (and prosecution summaries are often wish lists rather than a collection of hard facts), then he will struggle to come up with a defence.
Mr XX was chased from the shop by the victim, who never lost eye contact with him and eventually grabbed hold of Mr XX and made a citizen’s arrest. The prosecution alleges that Mr XX had stolen the money to buy drugs. During the exposition of the case against him, Mr XX calls out for me and I go over to the dock.
‘See?’ he says. ‘I ain’t going guilty because they’re going to have to bring her over from America. There’s no way they’re going to do that.’ In a ploy common to many habitual criminals, Mr XX wants to string the whole process out for as long as possible in the hope that something will go wrong with the prosecution case. As predicted, the prosecutor asks for two weeks so that a decision can be made as to whether the witness will be brought back to England to give evidence at a trial for the theft of a purse which was recovered with nothing missing from it. The prosecutor finishes and the magistrate looks contemptuously at Mr XX.
‘We are going to make some progress today.’ Mr XX murmurs his assent and paces on the spot slightly, a nervous but keen foot soldier willing to do anything his general should ask of him.
‘Ready to enter a plea then?’ The clerk addresses her remark to me and as I reply I can hear him calling my name, softly at first, then more insistently, louder.
‘Yes,’ I say.
‘John . . .’
‘We’re ready . . .’
‘John . . .’
‘To enter a plea . . .’
‘JOHN . . .’ I look round and his face and shoulders are twitching erratically. The security guards standing next to the dock look on in amusement. The clerk recites a statutory preamble and then asks:
‘Are you guilty or not guilty?’
‘I’m not going guilty or not guilty,’ he says. Inside, I scream: ‘You fucking awkward bastard.’ The magistrate stares at him and then at me.
‘Hasn’t your barrister advised you?’ I spring upwards.
‘Sir, I have . . .’ as Mr XX interrupts: ‘Excuse me. I don’t know. I’m just doing what he tells me . . . He just told me to go not guilty.’
The magistrate does not react. He looks as steadily at the enemy today as perhaps as a young man he faced the wogs in Malaya or the micks in Northern Ireland. Then he turns to me: ‘Mr Upton, would you like some more time to advise your client?’
Mr XX again speaks up: ‘Excuse me. Let’s just get on with it, yeah. I can’t fucking stay here all day.’
Once more, fury has seized his throat. The clerk looks up sharply.
‘Don’t you swear in court.’
‘NOT GUILTY,’ shouts Mr XX, spitting out the phrase like an obscenity.
The prosecutor and I agree the adjournment and the magistrate throws his pencil down onto his jotter and gives a slight shake of the head.
‘Bail?’ he asks.
I make the request that the reporting condition be removed on the basis that he has turned up for today’s and all previous court appearances for this offence and this is not opposed by the prosecutor. The reporting condition is lifted. There are a list of other bail conditions which remain in force: Mr XX must eat and sleep at the same address every night, must be in his house between the hours of 12 a.m. and 8 a.m. and he must not travel north of the Thames except to attend court. I feel the sweat in a steady rivulet descending from my right armpit. It is almost over. We fix a date for the next appearance and I stand and bow to the magistrate.
‘I’m grateful, sir.’
‘Thank you, Mr Upton,’ he says and we leave court.
As soon as we are out Mr XX turns on me. ‘No way. I fucking told you about that fucking bail condition. You’re just fucking shit.’ His jaw shoots. ‘I cannot survive with that condition. I just can’t fucking survive. I’ve got to ring Dave’ – Mr XX’s solicitor – ‘and get a fucking proper brief. I’m getting that changed.’ It takes me some time to understand why he is so furious but eventually I work out that it is because of the condition preventing him from travelling north of the Thames. He is trembling and I try and calm him by telling him how unlikely it is that the witness will come back, it’ll all be over in two weeks, can’t he put up with it for two weeks, what’s important about this case is . . .
‘I’ll tell you what’s important in this case.’ He looks me in the eye, carefully picking his words, and when he speaks them, he delivers them with real delicacy and calm. ‘World peace.’ There is not a hint of sarcasm or humour in his voice. Mr XX heads for the exit and I pray that he will not come back.
The two women are still at their vigil for the Brixton van. There is a doubt as to whether it will turn up at all today, they inform me. More important, there have been further developments in the far corner. Now it seems that mother and son have participated in a marriage ceremony but it isn’t clear whether the bond is a purely spiritualist one or whether they’ve been through all the legal formalities and bigamy is to be added to the menu of abhorrences. One of the women says: ‘Her real husband’s here now.’ She points to an old man in a raincoat that looks more like a shit-stained blue rag than a piece of clothing. He wears an equally shabby trilby. Like his wife (and their son), his skin has a blanched, parchment quality. Wisps of straggling white hair protrude from under his hat. He has an enormous, yellowing bandage on his right index finger, which he waves in various directions as he makes his doddering way between the two groups. My two friends roar with laughter as he stumbles over a number of plastic bags he has collected around him.
‘She’s already got two kids by the old bloke.’ The mother and son have become increasingly agitated. They move closer to one another and now and then make impulsive gestures with their hands before drawing back. Because of their size and their childish clothes they look like two toddlers in an impossibly complicated adult world. The light has deteriorated sharply and there are forecasts of rain. One of the spiritualist minders is making a call from a public phone attached to the wall of the waiting area. The other has gone to the toilet. The social workers are both leaning against the wall and for an instant the son, the father and the mother stand together, the father between his wife and her lover. Momentarily, it is as if a flash from a camera has brought out the hidden contours of dignity from within them and they stand alone, shockingly separate from everything else. The image dissolves. I go and check whether Mr XX is outside. He isn’t and when I return the women, aghast, relay the most recent twist in the story.
‘She’s saying that her son raped her.’ The freak show has taken a darker turn. The two women, like the others who have enjoyed the morning’s sport, are part of the feudal system of crime in which the armed robber, the blagger, is lord of all he surveys. Below him the drug-dealer, the thief, the fence and the dipper jostle for position. And they all hate the sex criminal, the nonce who will serve his prison sentence in isolation for fear of being killed by this moral majority.
Everyone is relieved to have found someone to hate. The son is resting his hands on the shoulders of the male social worker like a boxer pushing his way to the ring through the crowds. Only his hat, bobbing up and down in the midst of these giants, signals his existence. His retinue disappears down a side corridor accompanied by a security guard. I decide to leave the two women and as I stand up a drunken tramp approaches me.
‘Did you win?’ he asks and I am at a loss as to how to respond. He teeters backwards and forwards, waiting for an answer, his eyebrows contorted into question marks.
‘Did you?’ I say pathetically.
‘What does it fucking look like?’ he answers. Over in the group, the mother is crying and from this distance it looks as if the old man in the trilby is conducting the flow of her tears with a dirty white baton.
It is near the lunchtime adjournment and the waiting area is quiet. I hear the hideous noise made by the metal detector as somebody strides through it without emptying their pockets and then Mr XX returns. I have looked through his papers and know that he has only recently completed a long custodial sentence for theft. I have also found out that he is a crack addict. He seems calmer now and more sure of what he wants to do. Like every habitual criminal who knows how to play the game, Mr XX is very careful not to tell me anything which might professionally embarrass me and prevent me from representing him.
For example, if he were to tell me that he had in fact committed the theft, then I would have to withdraw from the case, or he would have to change his plea in order for me to be able to continue to represent him. So when he tells me that he wants the restriction on his travelling north of the Thames removed and I ask why, he doesn’t give me the real and most obvious reason – that his most profitable hunting grounds are on that side of the river – but instead answers: ‘Listen, John, I’m a chauffeur, yeah? I can’t fucking work, can I, with that condition on. I do work in North London, yeah? I courier stuff as well. How can I work?’ His jaw trembles slightly. He has obviously managed to get a fix and spoken to someone who has given him a reason for the condition to be lifted by the court. There are solicitors who are prepared to go to great lengths for their clients; it occurs to me as I talk to Mr XX that the whole system is predicated on the assumption that the person accused has actually committed the crime, knows the ropes and has the contacts. God help an innocent person enmeshed in this, I think to myself, as I write a brief submission in my notebook.
The magistrate has already adjourned for lunch and the usher has to go to his rooms and ask him whether he will reconvene the court in order to hear Mr XX’s application. He agrees and lollops into court once more, nodding at me as he takes his seat. I tell the magistrate of Mr XX’s long career as a chauffeur and of his current employment doing jobs all over London but particularly in the North. I tell him of the onerous nature of the condition and how it will ruin Mr XX’s livelihood. To reinforce my point during my submission, I turn on occasion to Mr XX in the dock and he nods enthusiastically at the magistrate. I finish my speech and the magistrate thanks me.
‘Stand up Mr XX,’ he barks. ‘Are you legally aided?’
‘He is, sir, yes. He’s been receiving legal aid since the –th when this case began,’ comments the clerk without looking up from her notes.
The magistrate stares at Mr XX. ‘And have you declared on your form that you work for a courier company?’
‘How did you do this couriering then?’
‘In my own car.’ Without speaking the magistrate thrusts his hand out so that it hovers above his clerk’s head. She places the legal aid form in it with the slightest hint of a smile. Another sucker has fallen for the old routine.
‘But you have not declared that you own a car on your form. Neither is there any mention of any earnings from your employment. Mr XX, you realise it is a serious offence to lie on your legal aid application.’
‘It’s my friend’s car. It’s not on the road at the moment. I’m just hoping to get more work. I’ve not actually started . . .’ A flood of increasingly pathetic excuses issues from Mr XX’s mouth and the magistrate continues talking over the top of them.
‘This court can reassess your financial position and make you pay back money already obtained from the Legal Aid Board. Do you wish to take this matter any further?’ There is silence from the dock. ‘Mark up this file,’ he says to the clerk and then, ‘Bail as stated this morning,’ to the court at large. He stands and everyone apart from Mr XX stands also. The magistrate sees him, disconsolately sitting in the dock with his elbows on his knees like a player in the dug-out who has just been sent off, pauses and then walks out.
‘Let’s go for a cup of tea,’ Mr XX implores when we are outside, drawing on a cigarette end, and now with court behind us and his temper under control, his glittering eye has taken on an aspect of vulnerability which I have previously had to ignore. I agree, but not for entirely altruistic reasons: I feel that I have not performed adequately in court and I am worried that Mr XX will give a poor report of my performance. On such things are careers made or broken and so our trip to the tea-room will also be a damage-limitation exercise on my part. We walk to a café round the corner from the court. As we approach, I see a waiter watching us, standing between the sandwich counter and the shiny cappuccino machine. We enter the café and sit down. Mr XX takes off his hat and places it carelessly on my rucksack. The waiter comes over and puts a ‘Reserved’ sign on our table. Mr XX orders a cup of tea and I have a Coke. I assume there is a mistake but the waiter says we can stay for these drinks, but then we must leave as the table is needed urgently. I am overwhelmed by the indignity of it all. He stands and watches us.
Mr XX says, ‘Okay mate,’ and thanks me for the tea. Then he begins to talk. At first he is coherent as he speaks of his time in prison. He tells me of the way random drugs tests can be cheated (by concealing a flake of soap under your fingernail and dropping it into the urine sample) and of how primitive weapons are constructed (razor-blades are moulded into toothbrush stems to produce slashing implements and sugar is added to boiling liquid so that it sticks to the skin when it is thrown). He tells me of a punishment known as the cannonball run, when the screws ‘shut down’ the prison – that is, they confine the prisoners to their cells and then post a group of officers at the top and bottom of each flight of stairs connecting the various landings. After this, they throw their chosen victim down the stairs, catching him at the bottom of each flight. As a finale, the recipient of this treatment is dragged up to his cell again, his face hitting the steps as he makes his ascent.
As he continues to talk, Mr XX becomes more and more confused and his tic reappears. Eventually he falls silent. He slurps his tea violently and appears to be struggling with something as if conducting an internal argument. Finally, he speaks, straining with the effort of language.
‘John, can I tell you why I can’t fucking cope with this case? Can I?’ I nod my assent and he continues.
‘I’ve got all the animals in Africa and China in my head.’
The waiter comes and hovers at the table and a spray of rain suddenly hits the window. I pay the bill at the counter and Mr XX dons his deerstalker and leaves me without saying anything more. The waiter stands at the window watching Mr XX wander up the street, a crackhead and a criminal. He shrugs and goes back to frothing the milk.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.