I heard rather than saw the bloodied fist “swish” past my head as it smashed into the cell wall. I had just broken the news to the client that the prosecution were opposing bail. What then followed was a diverting few minutes where the client ran around the cell, rather like a motorbike rider in a fairground ‘ Wall of Death‘ screaming and smashing his fist repeatedly into the wall leaving bloody imprints. At one point I watched transfixed as a fleck of blood landed on my shirt cuff that covered my wrist on the arm desperately ringing the emergency bell.
No one came.
I genuinely thought in a moment I would be attacked with consequences that might have been unforeseen when I entered the cell. So I decided to stand up and confront the raging client. As he came around at the cell again I stood in front of him pointing and shouted
“Shut up and sit down“.
“Why the fuck should I“? He screamed.
With as much force as I could muster I replied
“Because, Because, Because, I am absolutely terrified”
“Are you?” He replied. He looked genuinely shocked.
“Yes” I replied in turn, “I am really scared”. (true)
But “why” he asked? ”You’re my fucking solicitor aren’t you. Its those other bastards I hate not you. I’m not going to hurt you. Why do you think that?”
“Oh I don’t know” I responded. “It might have something to do with the running round the cell thing, smashing your fists into the walls and the sight of the blood. Perhaps I’m being over sensitive”?
He said “I think you are mate I ain’t gonna hit you am I? You’re on my side ain’t you.”
“Of course. I’m so glad you see it that way shall we sit down and have a chat.”
I regarded this as the triumph of extreme cowardice over extreme violence.
We became friends for that limited period. I managed to get him bail subject to a bail hostel being available. He was released from prison but didn’t turn up at the bail hostel because he thought that I was amiss in not personally arranging a taxi to collect him from the prison gates. That was the end of the friendship.
The next time I was in danger was at a police station. I was introduced to the client and went through the usual explanations including the recently introduced new caution, with its implications to the right to silence due to the inference of guilt. The client was no stranger to the police but he didn’t grasp my purpose in explaining the caution. He said
“I always go no comment mate let’s get on with it“. I tried to explain that I needed to know his response to the allegation so I could advise whether a no comment interview was sensible.
His response was
“You are fucking useless and you’re sacked”.
He then got up opened the door and walked down the corridor towards the custody desk. Given obvious signs of drug withdrawal the comment I made to his retreating back, on reflection showed dubious judgement on my part
“Don’t forget to claim your money back from the Charm SchooL” (such wit I thought).
The next thing that happened is that he turned on his heels and ran very quickly towards me clenching his teeth and with his fists raised. I stood motionless because I sensed he would probably defeat me in combat. I dare not raise my arms in self defence as I was convinced this would result in immediate pain to my head. So I just stood there looking at him and trying not to look frightened. It was for a few seconds but it seemed like an hour. My trying to be cool (always a mistake in my case) was rather spoiled by the outbreak of perspiration on my head which cause my spectacles to slowly drift down my nose and fall onto the floor.
He just looked at me with utter contempt and said “you are a ‘C**T” and walked away.
Yes I thought. He had a point.
I can’t use that word ‘c**t’ let alone type it ever since I blurted out that word at the age of nine to my parents about the then Prime Minister, to whose image my father was shouting at on TV. (I having heard that word from my very cool Australian friend Sandy). My mother then explained I should not use the word as it was ‘part of a Lady’s anatomy that is completely unmentionable’. That was all the sex education I ever received really. Mysteriously I did have children – somehow. But that is a digression.
The point of my two anecdotes is simply this. They are not exceptional. It is the commonplace experience of many lawyers who have now days felt threatened and some indeed assaulted. No solicitor or barrister should be exposed to violence. It should be axiomatic in a civil society that it is wrong for anyone doing their job to be hurt or threatened. Be they Lawyers or anyone else in the CJS.
It is a matter of deep pride to me that Lawyers deal with dangerous people all the time and think so little of it because they know it is part of their duty to represent all sorts of different people including those with some unfortunate violent tendencies.
What is new however is the coarsening of public debate and media encouragement of such. Look at the abuse suffered by some MPs which of course led to the tragic death of Jo Cox MP. I will say no more about that here. From a legal professional point of view however there is a threat now. Or rather an accumulation or accretion of abuse towards defence lawyers which makes it apparently acceptable to imply some sort of moral blameworthiness for simply representing, as a lawyer, those whom the state prosecutes.
I represented someone in a notorious case. The details do not matter. The Detective chief superintendent pulled me into a room and asked me this “ I know you have family of your own. What I want to know is how do you sleep at night fighting so hard for someone like this man?
My response was this. “What keeps me awake at night is the thought that you may have arrested the wrong person and because I don’t do my job properly he is charged, whilst the criminal who committed this crime remains at large and commits further crimes against innocent people.” I also told him that I felt contempt for his bringing my family into our professional relationship and would he never do that again? I got up and left and went back to my client.
And that is the point. Defence lawyers are there to represent everyone in all situations. We do not choose our clients. We represent them according to ethical standards and rules. It is the job of the jury and magistrates to judge our clients should that opportunity arise following a charge. We cannot allow our personal feelings to intrude in our discharging that role. It would be dangerous to do so. We cannot as a lawyer say to someone “I thoroughly disapprove of this type of offence but please go down the road because there is a sleezy solicitor there who has no moral compass and will simply represent anyone”.
We cannot pick and choose and it would be wrong to place our personal judgement in the way of accepting a case. Apart from anything else that judgement might be wholly wrong. Although lawyers have their suspicions based upon the weight of the evidence I doubt if there is a single lawyer who has not experienced their personal views being confounded by the developent of actual evidence during the trial and discovering (perhaps to their surprise) that the client is far more innocent than the lawyer supposed.
It was with deep dismay that I found my colleague Richard Egan under assault from the Daily Mail and social media. The Secret Barrister answered these perfectly here so I won’t repeat the points. https://thesecretbarrister.com/2019/01/05/dont-let-the-jack-shepherd-stories-on-legal-aid-distract-you-from-the-governments-cynical-agenda/.
When we nervously took our 4 branch firm Robin Murray & Co into a franchise style merger with Tuckers Solicitors, Richard was one of the first to reassure me and offer the hand of friendship. It was immediately quite clear from talking to him that he was a thoroughly good lawyer and decent human being. Nothing has changed that view of him. He is brilliant. He is respected far and wide and indeed was a recipient of a Legal aid Lawyer of the Year award for, as that organisation has tweeted, ‘his fearless demolition of US govt claims that his innocent Algerian client was architect of 9/11. Richard didn’t buckle when faced with the might of the FBI’.
It was shocking to learn that he was the subject of serious threats. I was, like many, upset by this but touched by the unconditional support of the profession for Richard. He, I am sure would rather be known for his work than unpleasant threats. Which brings me to this conclusion.
All over the world lawyers are being threatened, intimidated, imprisoned, assaulted and worse for simply doing their Job. This happens now in Turkey, China, Hong Kong, Columbia, the Philippines and many other nations.
We do not want these dangers replicated here by vigilantes encouraged by reckless reporting.
No one supports free speech more than lawyers. But it is incumbent upon the national press and social media companies to report crime and legal aid responsibly. The lies in the so called popular press have consequences. The years of hostile and entirely misleading propaganda about legal aid lawyers must end. So must irresponsible comment by Politicians without reference to the full facts and background. Please stop now before the unthinkable happens.