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AT THE ASYLUM

April 9th, 2014

 Herewith another excerpt from May It Please Your Lordship by Toby Potts, Chapter Seven:

I ARRIVED EARLY, and, after a brisk walk from the station, decided on a stroll around the extensive and well-manicured grounds. The court had been converted from one of those magnificent Victorian monstrosities built to contain the mad, the bad and the abandoned, with an abundance of crenulated walls, and fetching little turrets rising majestically into the perpetual grey sky. It looked like a lunatic asylum, and it certainly fitted the mould. Long, drafty corridors, antiseptic paint everywhere, obviously a job lot, and completely soulless.

Although it was winter, there was a watery sun reflecting off the enormous lake, the squirrels were busy collecting nuts, and a large flock of Canada geese were paddling and hissing along the shore. It was an idyllic scene totally out of keeping with the past and present occupants.

My reverie was rudely interrupted by a loud bellow.

Looking up, I saw a strange figure, dressed in an old knitted cardigan, standing on one of the crenulated parapets of the court. Obviously one of the former inmates. I cupped my hands to my ears.

‘Get off the grass!’ bellowed the strange figure.

Poor old fool, better humour him. I gave him a cheery wave and strolled towards the main entrance.

Having found the robing room, small and crowded, I was about to be exposed to some old-fashioned sandbagging, although I didn’t know it at the time.

‘Are you Potts?’ I turned round to be confronted by a short, wiry man in his early 40s, with greying hair, pursed lips, and an aggressive demeanour. ‘I defend Pedder,’ he continued before I could answer, ‘and I’m led to believe that you prosecute.’

‘Yes, that’s right.’

‘My name’s Cantwell.’ I nodded. ‘Now, the defendant will accept a bind-over if you offer no evidence. Done and dusted, and we can be on our way by eleven. After all, some of us have better things to do than fart around here all day. So what do you say?’

‘I’m afraid it’s not my decision,’ I replied, remembering my instructions. Even if it had been, I wouldn’t have accepted a bind-over – effectively, a slap on the wrist with a promise from the defendant to be a good boy in future in return for being allowed to walk away, whistling. ‘Anyway, I’d say your man is as guilty as sin.’

Cantwell scoffed, derisively. ‘A minor consideration, and one I do not entertain. Nor, for that matter, does my client.’

‘What about his previous convictions?’ I continued. ‘Your client’s a prolific offender.’

‘And just how do you intend getting that into evidence?’ said Cantwell. ‘His previous convictions are irrelevant, as well you should know.’

He had a point, and I knew it: there are strict rules forbidding the disclosure to the jury of a defendant’s previous convictions, on the basis that you don’t give a dog a bad name and hang him

‘Anyway,’ he said, not waiting for a reply, ‘I can see that we’re wasting each other’s time. We’ll let the jury decide where the truth lies.’

And with that, he flounced out of the robing room.

Noël Cantwell, I later discovered, was almost a permanent fixture at Snaresbrook. He lived locally, so it suited him. He had three golden rules – never prosecute, never plead guilty, and never fraternise with the prosecution, who were the enemy, to be tolerated as a necessary evil, but never to be humoured. All of this ensured that he got regular and remunerative work from local defence solicitors, whom he kept on a very tight rein.

As I made my way to Court Thirteen, I contemplated the prospect of my first jury trial with understandable trepidation. I was hardly prepared for the task ahead, through no fault of my own. I thought about the reviewing lawyer’s clear belief that there would be a plea of guilty. Some review! Some lawyer! And to cap it all, Cantwell as my opponent, with the bit between his teeth. I’d have to be at my sharpest to win the shining hour. But then, the evidence did seem overwhelming.

With five minutes to go, there was no sign of the CPS law clerk, who was supposed to hold my hand and steer me effortlessly through the stormy waters. As I was contemplating my next move, the usher popped her head around the door. Addressing nobody in particular, and in the manner of a fishwife shouting the odds, she bellowed, ‘The case of Pedder will be heard in Court One!’

Bellowing was almost endemic at Snaresbrook Crown Court.

I shuffled into court, with Cantwell barging his way forward and studiously ignoring me, all the time under the watchful gaze of His Honour Judge ‘Bonkers’ Clarke, the Resident Judge.

Snaresbrook was not exactly the jewel in the Crown Court hierarchy, and finding a resident judge to hold sway and bring much-needed gravitas to the post proved almost a bridge too far. However, more by luck than good judgment, word reached the Mandarins in the Lord Chancellor’s department that His Honour Judge Bonkers Clarke, recently separated from his wife following unfounded salacious revelations in the tabloid press, had been advised to look for a change of scene well away from his usual watering hole if he were ever to enjoy his index-linked pension. Such advice from the Lord Chancellor was not to be lightly discarded, so, after a suitable period in retreat, he was duly installed. The fact that he was known by one and all as Bonkers from his earliest days on the Bench made the appointment almost apocryphal.

 

‘The judge, without knowing how or why,

Made still a blund’ring kind of melody,

Spurred boldly on, and dashed through thick and thin,

Through sense and nonsense, never out nor in.

Free from all meaning, whether good or bad,

And in one word, heroically mad.’

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AT THE SCRUBS

April 8th, 2014

Herewith as promised another excerpt from May It Please Your Lordship by Toby Potts, Chapter Six:

 

The conference had been arranged that very afternoon, at four thirty sharp, in the depths of Her Majesty’s Prison at Wormwood Scrubs. It was my first visit to Wormwood Scrubs – the first of many – and it lived up to its rather depressing name. A Victorian creation on the outer margins of west London, where decent folk feared to tread, it had been built to house four hundred and eighty of the Good Queen’s less fortunate subjects but, with the advance of a more civilised society, was now home to over eleven hundred, all crammed together in small, unhygienic cells like a German holiday camp in the Canaries. In spite of later additions and some updating, the prison still retained its original crenulated façade, totally out of keeping with the squalid mass of squirming humanity behind its high walls. A slate grey sky and a biting wind which assailed me as I hurried, coat up around my neck, to the main entrance simply confirmed my first impressions: this was hell on earth, and the sooner I was out of it, the better.

Entry to the Scrubs was a performance in itself, proving – if proof were needed – that getting out was a good deal easier than getting in. I produced my letter of authority at the gate, and, after careful scrutiny, I was escorted across the yard, together with twenty or more of the inmates’ nearest and dearest, all clutching their visitors’ vouchers, to a sort of holding pen.

My first and lasting memory was the overpowering smell of body odour and strong disinfectant as we all shuffled forward to be searched. When it came to my turn, I was confronted by a female prison officer – it was the skirt that gave her away – built like a brick barn and sporting an incipient moustache. As she’d clearly had her sense of humour surgically removed on or before taking the job, you stepped across her shadow at your peril. After I had removed every metal object I could think of, I walked through the electronic gate, which of course bleeped. To a groundswell of hostile mutterings behind me, back I went, and everything I had to my name was deposited into a plastic dish and pored over like the droppings of a sacred cow. After what seemed like an eternity, I was given a clean bill of health and moved on to the final hurdle, the conference admissions officer.

‘I have a conference booked with Darren Willis,’ I said. I was trying to be at my most charming while staying on the right side of obsequious. No point upsetting the natives, although my patience was being tested to its limits. ‘I am his counsel.’ Might as well pull rank.

‘Are you indeed?’ The admissions officer, unimpressed, picked up his clipboard and ran his finger down the list. ‘Willis, you say?’

‘That’s right. W-I-L-L-I-S.’

The admissions officer gave me an old-fashioned look, and returned to the clipboard. ‘Sorry, but I’ve no record of a conference booked with W-I-L-L-I-S.’

This was not going well. I was about to protest, when the admissions officer’s supernumerary detached the enormous mug of tea from his lips and offered his two bit’s worth. ‘’ang on a minute, George,’ spake the Oracle, ‘ain’t that Bootsy Farmer’s collar? Yer know, Tosser?’

George’s brow furrowed as the thought processes cranked into gear. Back to the clipboard and the descending finger. Eureka! Got it at last! ‘Tosser… why didn’t you say so? Room Seventeen. Mr Farmer’s with him, ’as been for the last twenty minutes’. George looked up. ‘You’re late, squire.’

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PRIDE AND JOY

April 7th, 2014

Herewith as promised another excerpt from my latest humorous book on the law, entitled May It Please Your Lordship by Toby Potts, Chapter Five:

 

FORTUNATELY, MY SHAKY start didn’t turn out to be career threatening. After a few days in purdah, I was soon back in the saddle and whetting my appetite on several mentions, applications, and even one plea in mitigation. Confidence returned, and I was beginning to feel ready for the big time.

In this positive spirit came the case of the Crown versus John Gray, charged with the criminal damage of two rare Amazonian Blue parrots, which the local press dubbed ‘Pollycide’. He was also charged with criminal damage to a stately pleasure dome, now nothing better than matchwood, and using threatening words and behaviour.

I knew – and know – very little about birds.

My Great Aunt Maud once had a canary, very briefly, which she christened Chirpy, because he chirped a lot.

The dear woman was a bit batty, and didn’t realise that if you let a bird out of its cage, it is the devil’s own job to get it back in again, and the more he flew around the room, in a heightened state of agitation, the looser became his bowels. Great Aunt Maud was very house proud; in fact, living on her own and with little else to do, being proud of her house was a full-time obsession, so Chirpy’s bowel problems became a significant issue. Further, Chirpy’s habit of emptying the bottom of his cage onto Great Aunt Maud’s best Persian rug didn’t help.

After mature consideration, she decided Chirpy should do his poos outside in the garden, and that was the last she saw of him. For days after, at all hours of the day and night, and much to the annoyance of her neighbours, Great Aunt Maud would stand outside her garden door, calling Chirpy’s name. Great Aunt Maud had a particularly shrill voice.  But I was soon to discover that Chirpy and his little peckadilloes were as nought compared to the Amazonian Blue.

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MY FIRST OUTING

April 5th, 2014

An excerpt from Chapter Four of May It Please Your Lordship by Toby Potts:

 

 

HORSEFERRY ROAD MAGISTRATES’ Court. Within chiming distance of Big Ben, and a stone’s throw from Smith Square and Lord North Street in the heart of Westminster Village, where the real business of government is done behind closed doors and heavily draped curtains.

But I had other things on my mind as I travelled to court, clutching my first ever brief. I had duly completed my first six months’ pupillage with Berger. They had not been a conspicuous success, even by Berger’s modest standards, and they had seemed to drag on forever. Sadly for me, Berger’s big day out at the Bailey was the high point in an otherwise undistinguished and mundane practice, fed as it was on an unremitting diet of low-grade crime, always prosecuting, always whining, winning some and losing some, keeping his nose clean and waiting for the call to come on up onto the Circuit Bench. An ideal candidate, if Sir Archibald were to be believed.

I couldn’t move fast enough to wave Berger goodbye, and with luck on my side, I found a second pupillage in Brick Court, another converted Victorian lavatory. My new pupil master, Nick Ridley, was cut from a different cloth altogether, - he was dynamic, upwardly mobile, with a good solid practice in serious crime, and tipped, by many, for elevation before long to the ranks of Queen’s Counsel. Becoming a QC – or ‘taking Silk’ as it was called after the silken gowns worn by the chosen – was the passport to the senior ranks of the profession, achieved by a labyrinthine process of recommendations, nods and winks, and bestowed on those able junior barristers who had slaved away with distinction at the sharp end for at least ten years.

After a week or three of getting to know each other and bonding, I found myself passing the clerks’ room one evening, just before close of play, when the senior clerk called me in.

‘I’d like you to help me out, sir,’ he said.

I didn’t know what to expect, and I was rooted to the spot. For the senior clerk to address me at all was privilege indeed.

‘Chambers solicitor can’t make it to court tomorrow, so I’ve agreed to cover it. It’s plea before venue at Horseferry Road Magistrates Court, client charged with making off without payment. Straightforward case, you’ll be on your own, but I’m sure you can handle it. Here’s the brief. Meet the client at court.’ And so saying, in that seminal moment when the Heavens conjoin, the brief was ceremonially handed over to me, in much the same way, I imagine, as Jehovah handed down the Ten Commandments to Moses. All that was missing was the burning bush and the deep and manly voice of Charlton Heston.

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AT THE BAILEY

April 3rd, 2014

THAT FRIDAY EVENING, as instructed, I phoned Berger’s Chambers.

‘Mr Berger will be at the Bailey on Monday,’ garbled the senior clerk, in between mouthfuls of tea and ginger nut crunchies. ‘So if you care to meet him in Chambers at nine o’clock sharp, he’ll walk down with you.’

I put down the phone with a frisson of excitement as I contemplated my first day in pupillage – and at the Bailey, no less. I had obviously underestimated my learned pupil master.

Berger of the Bailey! What a thrill!

According to my frequently boring lectures on the history of the English legal system, the Bailey – or, more precisely, the Old Bailey – was the highest criminal court in the land, and had been since 1673. It was where murderers, rapists, and other felons were prosecuted, convicted and then taken to a place of execution to be hanged by the neck until dead, and may God have mercy on their souls. Man, woman and child, guilty and innocent alike, were charged, condemned and dispatched to their Maker by Judges who had only a passing acquaintance with the law, and who went about the more pleasurable business of eating and drinking and fornicating without a moment’s reflection on the plight of those less fortunate than themselves.

Juries fared no better. They were threatened, cajoled and suborned into returning guilty verdicts regardless of the evidence, and those who had the temerity to kick against the prick were kept without food, drink, heat, or other creature comfort, until they saw the error of their ways.

I was as nervous as a kitten all weekend, and greatly relieved when the momentous day dawned. I was awake to greet it, which was just as well as it took me the best part of an hour to strap myself into the starched white collar, which was as stiff as a board and totally unyielding. I reflected that a dry run might have been a good idea, as the collar and I fought each other, neither willing to yield. But if I were to become a successful barrister I had to meet adversity head on. No good falling at the first hurdle. Vires in adversum, and all that.

Once locked into place, it felt like a medieval tourniquet. To make matters worse, I found it nigh on impossible to turn my head independently of my body, attracting a number of very strange looks and a helping hand across the road from an elderly lady as I made my way to the Underground.

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