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.’