A series by WHS McIntyre
20th April 2017 via Sandstone Press and Amazon
Life’s full of good news and bad news for defence lawyer Robbie Munro. Good news is he’s in work, representing Antionia Brechin on a drugs charge – the bad news is that she’s the granddaughter of notorious Sheriff Brechin.
Robbie juggles cases and private life with his usual dexterity, but the more he tries to fix things the more trouble everyone’s in.
'Take a large measure of Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn in Adam’s Rib, add a plot that would knock John Grisham for six, season with a picaresque cast of supporting characters, garnish with one-liners that Frankie Boyle would kill for, and you have a recipe for a page turner of the highest quality. Good News, Bad News is the latest in real-life lawyer William McIntyre’s ‘Best Defence’ novels, and if I was a commissioning editor for one of our TV companies, I’d snap up the rights double quick.' Alex Norton, Taggart
Published by Sandstone Press
Robbie Munro's back home, living with his dad and his new-found daughter. Life as a criminal lawyer isn't going well, and neither is his love life. While he's preparing to defend the accused in a rape case, it all becomes suddenly more complicated when one of his more dubious clients leaves a mysterious box for him to look after. What's in the box is going to change Robbie's life - forever.
'Crime with an edge of dark humour. The Best Defence series could only come out of Scotland.' Tommy Flanagan, Braveheart, SOA, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Best Defence Series now optioned for TV! Watch this space.
I'm a Scots lawyer. In fact, I have been a criminal defence lawyer for so long, I can just about remember the last time the legal aid rates were increased and the days when I could lift a copy of the Criminal Procedure Act off the desk without putting my back out.
I have tried to make the Best Defence Series as realistic as possible, borrowing on my many years in law and the characters and cases I have encountered along the way. Sometimes I've had to curb the realism because occasionally fact is stranger than fiction; however, I present Robbie Munro as a real life lawyer with real cases and, like all criminal lawyers in Scotland, and, I suspect, around the world, it's pretty much non-stop - having to be in two places at the same time, dealing with crazy clients and trying to make enough to pay the staff while sorting out family problems and keeping a roof over your head at the same time.
The Best Defence books are fast-paced, hopefully humorous and, as one kind reviewer put it, "complicated but never confusing." I hope you enjoy them. and, if you do, I'd love to hear from you.
I am available to speak at book groups etc. but I expect biscuits.
The Journal of the Law Society of Scotland
Edinburgh Evening News
In 1978 I broke my leg. Well, actually, Kenny MacAskill broke it for me; with a tackle that bore all the precision of a U.S. military bombardment. To be fair, Kenny didn't end a promising career in football; though experts say it was only a lack of ability that prevented me from joining soccer's elite. Still, you'd have thought the man might have left things at that, without going on to mutilate my career in the law too.
But no. If the Justice Secretary is not driving down legal aid, he's forcing me to provide an all-hours service that would have a G.P. coming out in a rash far less on strike. Once I could slip a copy of the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act into my back pocket, these days I can't lift it off the desk without pulling a muscle.
Scunnered and skint, I turn to writing. Having been a criminal lawyer for so long I can remember the last increase in legal aid rates, how hard will it be to knock-out some bestselling legal fiction? Not very... if Kenny will just stop mucking about with the law for five minutes.
My first attempt at a novel is a comedy wherein, in order to avoid a drugs-prosecution, a glamorous filmstar must marry an eye-witness. No sooner have I typed the final hilarious sentence, sat back and waited for the Booker Man people to knock at the door, than along comes Kenny with the Criminal Justice & Licensing (Scotland) 2010, section 86 making a spouse a compellable witness in all cases and ruining everything.
No matter, my next project will be a series of legal thrillers set in the Royal Burgh of Linlithgow, mine and Kenny's hometown, quaint, historic and with its very own Sheriff Court. Or it did have until the Scottish Government closed it. And the police station too.
Stubbornly, I soldier on. The Justice Secretary has done his worst, think I, dipping digital nib into virtual ink, ready to spin my next tale in which the hero-lawyer goes in search of the missing evidence required to corroborate...
Seriously, Kenny; tear-up the marriage vows, shut the cop shops and move Linlithgow Sheriff Court closer to the criminals, but discard a cornerstone of Scotland's criminal justice system? A centuries old institution that twenty-three out of twenty-four Macers said their Judges preferred? The only thing that atheist David Hume and God agreed on! 'Pah,' says Kenny, determined to spoil my latest plot-line. 'What do a few old guys in wigs, Scotland's most famous philosopher and the Almighty know about anything? Corroboration is an obstacle to justice.' Come on, Kenny. Corroboration is as Scottish as deep-fried heroin. That's how the English do it, is not a sound argument for SNP policy. I mean, the English also do Morris dancing. But the main reason for keeping corroboration is not because it's Scottish or even to save me thinking up a new story; it's because, though it has been diluted over the years, corroboration is still a valuable safeguard to wrongful conviction. And, yes, I know, lots of other countries don't have it. That's why lots of other countries have lots of innocent people banged-up.
And what a lot of other countries don't have is what the late Jock Thomson Q.C. described as 'an unholy, unhealthy alliance of law makers and senior figures at the Crown Office which has resulted in a morally and mortally flawed legal system.' No clearer manifestation of this is the plethora of politically-driven policies that has turned the offices of Scotland's 'independent' prosecution service into discretion-free zones. 'It's zero-tolerance, we've got to run the trial.' How many prosecutors say that on a daily basis? There are more tied hands in the COPFS than in an E.L. James novel.
Defence lawyers are often asked, 'how can you defend someone you think is guilty?' I ask, 'how can you invite a judge or a jury to convict someone you think is innocent?' Running an obviously flawed case to trial is dangerous. The truth doesn't always come out in the wash, and the masters of the facts don't always get it right. Juries are populated by people who either don't want to be there or, even worse, do, and there are Sheriffs and JPs on our benches who seem to think the presumption of innocence is a malicious rumour put about by defence agents. A corroborated case isn't perfect, and it is an obstacle - but an obstacle to injustice.With a box-set of zero-tolerance and zero-corroboration - no one is safe.
But why complain? Doesn't it mean more prosecutions, more business for my day job? So what if I have to think up a new plot for a book? I'm not the only crime writer affected by changing laws. Take poor old Raymond Chandler. In a single chapter of the Big Sleep, P.I. Philip Marlowe carries a firearm, drink-drives, smokes in a bar, uses racist language, backhands a hysterical dame - and he's supposed to be the good guy! The baddy, on the other hand, is some bloke who, under today's laws, is selling perfectly legal pornography.
And, you know, the more I think back to that tackle in 1978, the more I feel a twinge in my leg and wonder: was it really a mis-timed challenge? Wasn't it a tad reckless? Intentional? An assault to my severe injury? I don't suppose anyone else who was on the pitch that day will remember what happened. Not after all those years. Only me.
I don't suppose the abolition of corroboration will apply retrospectively. Will it?
In a recent radio phone-in on the subject of the late Jimmy Savile, a caller berated criminal defence lawyers who, he said, "ran up huge legal aid fees, defending sex offenders who are obviously guilty."
Child abuse, sexual or otherwise, is a terrible crime; it's best to make that much absolutely clear from the outset; however, in the ever-widening field of historic sex-crime allegations, care needs to be taken. It is not unusual to see an indictment libel an age-old offence, said to have been committed over a time-frame of months or even years. Not easy, thirty or so years later, for the wrongly-accused to come up with an alibi that covers such an unspecific period without leaving a gap of a few minutes during which, as the Crown will claim, the crime could have been committed.
At the end of 2011 I dealt with a case in which my client, a man in his seventies, was alleged to have molested two seven year-old girls, now women in their forties, by luring them into his house on the promise of cakes. There, it was alleged, he had picked them up, held them in his arms and indecently assaulted them. Thirty-five years later the women had reported the matter to the police and provided statements claiming that the two incidents had taken place sometime during the summer of 1975.
My client didn’t take legal advice at first, but I can imagine his confidence when questioned, for during most of the 1970s and, certainly, all of 1975 he had worked abroad. His passport had more stamps than Michael Palin's. He didn't move into the house that was the locus of the alleged offences until he returned to the UK in 1981. End of that particular line of enquiry you might think. Not so fast. The police reinterviewed the complainers, fresh statements were taken and the two women simultaneously remembered that the incidents had not actually take place in 1975, but, rather, 1981. Now you may think that if a witness remembers being sexually abused, where it happened and who the abuser was, they might also remember if they were in primary three or in second year of higher education at the time. I know the old switcheroo caused eyebrows to be raised by those prosecuting locally, but theirs was not to reason why, theirs was to do what Crown Office policy dictates – a sex-crime complainer never lies.
With no independent witnesses, no DNA or other forensic evidence available, the trial was a test of credibility and reliability; a beauty contest. An elderly man against two women in their prime. For my client, old, infirm, thick glasses and the proud owner of a dodgy raincoat, it was hard not to look like a pervert. Notice how the newspaper photos of Jimmy Savile show him old and, therefore, at his creepiest-looking. For those who judge by appearances, in the credibility stakes an elderly-accused is a goal down before an evidential ball is kicked.
Fortunately, the jurors were not impressed by the complainers, perhaps due to their change of tack, perhaps because enticing children into a house on the promise of homebaking, lifting them bodily off the ground and then fiddling around with them was an M.O. that might work with seven year-olds, but would prove less effective with a couple of teenagers; nonetheless, for that seventy-seven year-old man, his wife, family and friends, the year between his initial arrest and eventual acquittal was a nightmare.
So, you ask, what’s the problem? Justice was done. But what if my client had not so foreign a working career? What if he hadn’t been able to show that he was working abroad in 1975. What if it hadn’t been another six years before he had actually been given the keys to the locus? There would have been no about-turn on the statements and, most likely, a conviction. After all, why would the witnesses make it up? That’s the atom-bomb question in the arsenal of anyone prosecuting an historical sex crime case, and I couldn't help wondering: if, as seemed clear, my client was innocent, why did the witnesses make a false allegation against a friendly old man who had in his seventy-seven years never darkened the door of a courtroom? Were they mentally unstable? Had they been abused by someone else when aged seven, made an honest but potentially terrible mistake as to the perpetrator and then had to lie to try and convict the wrong person? Did they care who was convicted so long as someone paid for their suffering? Were they after CICA compensation?
I’ll never know, but what seems clear is that there must be lots of reasons why people claim to have been sexually abused – and only one of those reasons is that it is the truth. Which is why we need to bear in mind that while it is an injustice for a perpetrator to go free, it is equally unjust for a legal system to adopt a mindset, to alter its rules of evidence, laws and procedures, so as to prosecute at all costs in the hope that someone, anyone, ‘gets done for it’; what the Government calls 'improving the conviction rates.' Accusations need be thoroughly tested; a job made increasingly difficult by legal aid cuts, rules of evidence that prevent adequate cross-examination and a politicised, pressure group-promoted school of thought that says everyone who alleges sexual abuse must be telling the truth and anyone who seeks to challenge such allegations is no better than the obviously-guilty sex-offender.
And as for the caller to the radio phone-in, all I can say is that if one day he finds himself wrongly-accused of a crime, it will be interesting to see if he takes the view that he is "obviously guilty." From experience, one usually finds that those who protest the most about lawyers and legal aid are the same ones who demand a no-expense-spared defence when the finger of the law extends in their direction.
Some years ago in Falkirk we had a several well-known jakeys, I think the collective noun is ‘an Elderado’, who drank and slept rough about the town. Foremost of these was James, an elderly man clad in a huge woolly overcoat, tied around the middle with a length of clothes line, whose wild, grey, nicotine-stained beard made him look like Santa’s evil twin. But James was harmless. The extent of his misbehaviour amounted to sitting around the town centre shouting at seagulls or sleeping on public benches - at least during the summer months, for, like a cuckoo heralding spring, the first sign of winter’s approach was James appearing in court, in search of the warmer climes and three square meals a day that Her Majesty could provide.
Now James’s brain wasn’t sufficiently befuddled not to know that a precursor to winter in the Big Hotel was the commission of an offence. No crime: no jail and they’d find him frozen to death under a hedge one morning. So he developed an M.O., which for a man who liked a tipple, was something of a win-win. As soon as the mercury plummeted, he would take himself, and a half brick, to the window at Haddow’s off-licence; a retail outlet conveniently situated close to the local cop shop. From there it was just a matter of introducing brick to plate glass and seeing how much of the window display he could swallow before the police came along and huckled him.
Next day at court the local Sheriffs would know exactly what to do and, several weeks later, like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, a fresh-faced, fresh-livered James would emerge from Bar-L to flutter off in search of nectar – okay, Special Brew.
I met James a number of times over the years while acting as duty agent. He always asked, “can you get me the jail?” Generally I can accede to such requests, and with little difficulty, but the last time I appeared with James he was tired. Haddows had closed and there were an awful lot of shuttered windows about. “They know I’ll do it,” he complained to me, in a Minority Report kind-of-a-way. “Why can’t they just pretend I’ve done it already?”
Sadly, the Lord called last orders on James some time ago, which is a pity because the Government's plans to remove the need for corroboration in criminal cases would have been right up his street. Soon all James mark II will have to do is locate a broken window or a spot of vandalism about the town and claim it as his own work. I’ve drafted a TV play on the subject.
INT: POLICE STATIONA WINTER’S NIGHT
ENTER:James (for it is he).
POLICEMAN:What do you want?v
POLICEMAN:But you haven’t done anything.
JAMES:Yes I have. Honest. Last night I broke a window.
JAMES:Just me, but I saw everything.
Okay, so it needs more work but it’s months until the Emmys.
A Roman walks into a bar, sticks up two fingers at the barman and says, “five pints of lager please”.
And oldie but a goodie and an example of why things need to be viewed in context. Unless, until recently, it was section 38 of the Criminal Justice & Licensing Scotland Act 2010; a piece of legislation brought in to stop pesky Sheriffs acquitting people of a breach of the peace, just because the peace hadn’t been… well, er… breached that much.
Under s.38 (1) a person commits an offence if he behaves in a threatening or abusive manner; the behaviour would be likely to cause a reasonable person to suffer fear or alarm; and the behaviour is intended to cause fear or alarm or is reckless as to its effect.
It seemed following decisions like that in Rooney v HMA, that it didn’t matter if an accused’s behaviour didn’t alarm or distress anyone. The test was whether such behaviour would have alarmed or distressed a ‘reasonable person’ – even if such a reasonable person wasn’t present to be alarmed or distressed. Continuing down that line and we were going to end up with Zen-masters in court for clapping one hand too loudly or causing disturbances by felling trees in deserted forests.
What alarms and distresses must depend on context and circumstances.
So thanks to the Appeal Court for Andrew Jolly v HMA  HCJAC 96 and clarifying parliament’s intention (I’m not so sure parliament knew that was its intention) that to constitute a breach of s.38, there must be someone actually present who is actually alarmed or distressed.
It may only be a sandbag against the flood of laws against free speech, but at least we can all feel free to have our say, no matter how outrageous, in the company of like-minded individuals, without fear of an imaginary, reasonable-person taking the hump.
I know it’s a decision that will (while amending legislation is drafted) come as a relief to the occupants of many an agents’ room in Sheriff Courts around Scotland; especially when the topic of conversation turns to the Scottish Government's views on justice or the bureaucratic entanglement that is the SLAB.
Wow! That was quick, and no need for amended legislation. Step in the Court of Appeal and a five bench decision August 2014.
It's officially a crime to alarm and distress people who would be alarmed and distressed if they were there - even if they aren't.
It’s that time again. It seems to come earlier every year. Yes, it’s the annual round of tabloid headlines announcing, shock-horror, Lawyers Paid Legal Aid Money For Doing Work.
Top of the legal aid earnings list this year is Adams Whyte. One million pounds! Never mind how many offices they have, people they employ or cases they conduct - one million pounds - that is a lot of money. Why, if you’re an MSP - it’s your pension-pot. If you're a fire chief it's half your pension-pot. Of course, it's not so much once you've deducted court dues, experts' fees and other obligatory outlays including, of course, 20% VAT. It's even less once you start paying the staff, the rent, the rates, the heat and lighting and the professional indemnity insurance.
Why don't we see headlines announcing that the rate of pay for advice and assistance in criminal legal aid cases has not increased in over twenty years? Or why a block fee for summary court work introduced in 1999 has gone down by 15%?
Here are some headline figures for you: £2.40. That’s what SLAB pays for a formal letter. £6 a page for a letter containing expert legal advice. Try getting your G.P. to do a letter for ten times that fee and you’ll be lucky. £21.10 and £42.20 per hour are the hourly rates for criminal advice and assistance work. Run those numbers past your plumber next time you’ve got a burst pipe and he’ll run your head under the cold tap.
How about some headlines about the public-funding of doctors? Find a GP who isn’t ‘trousering’ £100,000 p.a. and you can go looking for Nessie once you’re finished. The Government throws cash at GPs like Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor chucks arrows at a dartboard. Their premises and staff are all paid for along with the rest of their overheads and you won’t catch any doctors contracted to offer a 24/7 callout service, as is expected of criminal lawyers, yet they’ll happily go on strike because their state-funded pensions aren't huge enough.
But, of course, it’s different for doctors. Better keep them sweet. We are all going to get ill at some time, and we don’t want to pay peanuts and have our prostate examinations done by a monkey.
People don't see lawyers that way. Legal aid is for defending criminals. Prosecutions, unlike ill-health, happen to other people; not to them. Criminal lawyers act for people who think like that every day of their working lives; people stunned and shocked to discover they may lose their livelihood or liberty and who, having seen the screaming headlines about Fat Cat Lawyers, expect a no-expense-spared Rolls Royce service. Sorry, but your local garage wouldn’t do an oil change on a clapped-out Vauxhall Astra for forty quid an hour.
Putting things into perspective, it’s going to cost the country £6.2 billion to build two new aircraft carriers. That’s right over six thousand, million pounds. In other words, you can meet Scotland’s criminal legal aid bill, outlays, VAT and all (though why one branch of the Government needs to pay VAT to another, I don’t know) for the next sixty years!
Problem is, just like governments like to win wars, even other people's, they also like to win in court, and criminal lawyers are a nuisance when the State seeks to 'improve conviction rates' or introduce more types of criminal offence. The first people put to the wall by any totalitarian regime are the lawyers who seek to oppose it. We all know what happened to Hans Litten when he challenged Hitler. That is what is happening in Scotland. No firing squads, but the insidious genocide of a profession. No gas chambers, just an erosion of funding so that once the present generation at the criminal bar withers in the gown, the brightest and best of Scotland’s future lawyers will no more consider a career in criminal law than Michelangelo would deign to Artex your livingroom ceiling.
Just like our NHS is the envy of other nations, so, once, was our legal system, but the fact is that if we really want an effective criminal justice system, one that strives to ensure that no innocent person suffers, we have to pay for it, and in our adversarial system that means adequately funding the defence as well as the prosecution. And those who have concerns about paying taxes to 'defend criminals', rest-assured; whatever the State is prepared to pay to defend its citizens, it will always pay a whole lot more to try and convict them.
I was reminded again just how much of a one rule for some, one rule for others country we live in when listening to Radio 4 following the Nigella Lawson trial, oops, I mean the trial of her two assistants. Geoffrey Robertson QC was on, advocating that when persons such as Ms Lawson were called as witnesses they should be allowed legal counsel to represent their interests in court while they give evidence.
It's always the same when a toff gets in trouble, isn't it? Suddenly the establishment starts noticing flaws in the criminal justice system. Remember Ernest Saunders, the former CEO of Guinness, the only man to be cured of Alzheimer's, but not before the 'disease' led to his release from prison after 10 months of a five year sentence for insider trading? Ernie, who was rolling in dosh, applied for legal aid, but when his big city lawyers saw how low the hourly rate was, they complained that he couldn't get a fair trial and the LA rates were increased just for him.
Imagine if it hadn't been Big Nigella from Chelsea but Wee Nancy fae Falkirk who'd been in the witness box admitting to the use of class A drugs. Would the Prime Minister publicly state that he was on Team Nancy or would the UK's top Human Rights barrister come on the Today programme calling for a change in the law? Eh, naw. No sooner had Wee Nancy given her evidence than the drug squad would be forming all sorts of reasonable suspicions, shortly before piling through her front door at five in the morning, hunting for tick-lists and leaving with any mobile phones they could find. Her buroo money would be lifted too, just in case it was proceeds of crime, and, even if Nancy wasn't on Job Seekers Allowance (which is approximately ten pounds less a week than the TV cookery goddess's kids get per day in pocket money), she soon would be once her employers found out she took drugs. No book deals or cookery programmes for her. Just a shove in the direction of the nearest DWP office and her benefits sanctioned for twenty six weeks because she'd been sacked for misconduct.
I'm sure it wasn't a pleasant experience for Nigella to be cross-examined on her past substance abuse, but I have an idea that for Wee Nancy the drug squad might have a few more awkward questions, which, with social workers waiting in the wings to take the weans into care, I suspect she'd be heavily encouraged to answer. Like: "what's the name of her supplier," and, "see when you say you and your late husband took the drugs, was it you who supplied them to him, because that's a much more serious offence than simple possession."
Personally, I sit on the fence when it comes to the decriminalisation of drugs. On one hand, having dealt with plenty of them in my professional life, I can't think of any drug-user who, with hindsight, believes it was such a great idea. Robust legal measures to prevent ruined lives seem sensible, and yet, notwithstanding all the public funds spent on drug enforcement, it seems anyone stupid enough to want to take them does so anyway.
So while the law remains as it is, and the possession of class A drugs is prohibited, my one piece of advice to anyone who doesn't want to have their reputation tarnished, or be, as Ms Lawson put it, 'maliciously vilified' by having to admit to this illegal practice, is - don't take 'em.
Domestic abuse? Russell Crowe, AKA Bud White, in LA Confidential; now that is justice. Drag the man out of the house, give him a right good tanking, shove a service revolver in his mouth and suggest he mends his ways. Sort of puts a community pay-back order in the shade, doesn't it?
Except, not many of the domestic cases that come before the courts involve pretty housewives whose brute of a husband has been slapping them around because they forgot to put ketchup on the table. A great many centre around couples who, often after too much to drink, have had a high-volume slanging match. And yet, the Scottish Government's zero-tolerance policy, deals with even the most minor household disagreement as a major incident.
While every year tens of thousands of 'proper' crimes: thefts, assaults etc. don't make it anywhere near a court, the domestic abuse policy handed down from Government to Crown Office to the Police and Procurators Fiscal around Scotland, acts not so much as a guideline as a tramline, and, if you're a local cop or PF depute, the slightest diversion can derail your career.
I'm a defence lawyer. Commercially, I'd be mad not to encourage more prosecutions, and, yet, where is the public interest in locking up a husband and wife on Christmas Eve, separating them from their child, just so that three days later the Sheriff can admonish him for shouting at her and grant the wife an absolute discharge for giving her husband a push? That was Christmas ruined for one small boy and for a pair of tax-paying, first offenders, their eyes opened to the pettiness of the Scottish criminal justice system. It's also one example from around eighteen similar cases at Falkirk Sheriff Court on 27th December, no doubt repeated across Scotland.
Meantime, two of my clients with over fifty previous convictions between them, who were arrested on Christmas Eve on much more serious, but non-zero-tolerance, offences that made the headlines, were liberated on a police bail undertaking.
Now, I've dealt with plenty of accused, men and woman, (newsflash: some woman can be extremely violent) who would probably benefit from something more akin to the Bud White treatment, for who can disagree with the idea of clamping down on domestic violence? However, wouldn't it be better to clamp down on plain-old-fashioned-everday violence too? Why send the message that it's okay to punch a stranger? Punch some bloke in the street and expect a warning letter or fixed fine: shout at your husband/wife and expect a night in the cells and a criminal record that may result in loss of employment and hardship to the family.
The problem is that zero-tolerance policies are not compatible with the exercise of reasonable discretion, which in turn is why every household barney must now be categorised as domestic abuse and why police station cells are too full to house real criminals. How about big government butting out for a while and returning discretion to police officers and local prosecutors? They're intelligent grown-ups, hey, some of them may know better how to do their jobs than the MSP. Some may even have partners of their own and have experience of domestic spats, how they tend to cool down just as fast as they heat up. Maybe these trained professionals can be trusted to recognise the bad from the the mad from the sad.
When it comes to men and women, one Christmas Eve unassembled Lego kit can be the difference between domestic bliss and a domestic abyss, a night in by yersels or a night in the cells. Relationships are complicated. You can try and stamp-out domestic abuse, but you'll never eradicate family rows. Which is why we don't need a heavy-handed justice system that treats every family drama as a criminal crisis. What we need are trained, sensible people who can view a situation, assess what's happened and distinguish those who need to be locked up from those who should kiss and make up. We have those people already. Let them do their jobs.
I arrived at court the other morning to be met by an elderly woman in the foyer looking lost and confused.
'Is my lawyer here?' she asked.
To which, not unnaturally, I responded, 'who is your lawyer?'
'I don't know,' she said. 'I've forgot.'
Failing memory comes with age, someone once said, I can't remember who, and it brings me onto the subject of corn-on-the-cob. I like it. In fact, so fond am I of those golden kernels of goodness, smothered in melting butter, steady, that last year I cast-off a lifetime of horticulture-avoidance to try and grow a crop of my own. After all, some seeds, a few grow-bags, how hard could it be? Very, as it turned out.
Now I am of the school that says a man should never buy a house that has a garden too big for his wife to cope with; however, the incumbent Mrs McIntyre was having none of it, and the job of chopping down the forest of unproductive, unsightly and highly-tangled vegetation was left entirely to me.
Fortunately, I have, over the years, accrued a host of tools and implements from various relatives who are probably still wondering what happened to them. The one I chose for the job of pruning my maize plantation was a lock-knife with a double-blade that could both cut and saw. Think ‘Jagged Edge’ but without Glenn Close getting sweaty with Jeff Bridges. Whatever, it made short work of the woody-stalks and after twenty minutes hard labour, the brown wheely-bin was full and I was off in search of Saturday morning breakfast.
'If you'd bought some rolls we could have had bacon rolls,' I told my wife.
To which she replied. 'Yes, we could - if you'd bought some bacon.'
Smash/Cut to the corner shop, bacon and rolls on the counter, me delving into a pocket and coming out with a handful of cash and with, what in other circumstances might later have been described on indictment as, Crown Label 1: A Lock Knife.
Transporting a knife from A to B e.g. cutlery shop to home, is all very well, as is having one with you for the purpose of putting it to good use; it’s amazing the number of accused persons caught with a chib who are actually on their way to fit their granny’s new stair carpet; but I was bereft of such reasonable excuse, for, as an effective defence, forgetting there is a blade in one's pocket simply isn’t going to cut it.
Fortunately, the shop keeper was unconcerned, interested only in robbing me of an exorbitant price for a packet of Ayrshire’s finest, and, yet, as there was still some distance between myself and my frying pan, I could not help but worry. What if I was stopped and searched? The police did a lot of that: two thousand a week in Scotland. The knife would be found and I, as a zero-tolerance case, would have a weekend in the cells and a Sheriff and Jury trial to look forward to.
Walking briskly, (running was way too suspicious) I made my way home, shades of the prison house beginning to close. And then I thought: thank goodness for Kenny MacAskill; not something a lot of criminal lawyers have been thinking lately. For although the Lord Advocate has introduced a zero-tolerance policy for those found with knives, at least the intervention of the Cabinet Minister for Justice thwarted Labour's plan to impose a six month minimum mandatory prison sentence. A measure only narrowly avoided by a 63-61 vote against.
I understand the need to clamp down on knife crime, but why are some politicians so keen on zero-tolerance policies and mandatory sentences? What's wrong with allowing Procurators Fiscal, Sheriffs and Judges to distinguish blade-wielding thugs out looking for blood from forgetful, reluctant-gardeners who just want a bacon roll?
The combination of zero-tolerance policies and mandatory sentences is the criminal justice equivalent of haud-it and dod-it. If the only tool you give the judiciary is a hammer, then every one the local prosecutor is forced by Crown Office to put in the dock is a nail that must be soundly bashed, no matter the mitigation.
No matter, thanks to Mr MacAskill, as I write these words, safe at home, my dabs long wiped from the knife in quo, shower-time no longer holds the same fear for me. And, even if in due course corroboration is abolished and this article is taken as a confession of my guilt, at worst I reckon I’ll be made subject of a Community Payback Order. With my gardening experience I must be an excellent candidate for unpaid community work. I can even bring my own equipment. If I can remember what I did with it.
I like women, in fact I married one, and because she is outnumbered five to one in the gender stakes, I ensure equality reigns within the McIntyre household by occasionally relinquishing proprietary rights to the remote and watching movies in which for a change it is the women who are really smart and the men who are stupid; most of which cinema, I can't help but think, could be improved by the introduction of some Aliens, a few explosions or a really-good car chase.
One such film, Sliding Doors, came to mind when I was advising a client charged with assault. Sliding Doors, as some will know, follows, in parallel universes, the different routes the life of Gwyneth Paltrow's character takes depending on whether or not she makes a certain decision.
What brought the film to mind was that my client had a decision to make: whether to plead guilty or not guilty. Those not overly familiar with criminal defence might be thinking, why not just ask him if he is guilty and if he says, 'yes I am,' then plead guilty?
And that's presumably what Parliament had in mind too when introducing s.196 of the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995, a section largely ignored until the case of DuPlooy and others in 2003. A case which sparked a series of arithmetical decisions, most of which are in my TBR pile, but I understand are along the lines of: plead guilty early doors, save a trial and accept a healthy sentencing discount.
There are times when an early plea of guilty, as a sign of contrition or to prevent a child witness testifying, may be regarded as mitigation, and that was always so, long before section196 or Mr DuPlooy; however there is a problem. What if an accused doesn't know if he's guilty? What if his lawyer doesn't know either? In the sentencing-discount stakes he's at a distinct disadvantage compared to his bang-to-rights brethren.
But surely a person must know if he's guilty or not. Not necessarily.
My client was a chef. On Christmas Day his wife told him to come straight home after work as her sister and partner were coming for dinner and the meal would be postponed until later in the day so that they could all dine together.
Which would have all been fine had not drinks and nibbles been laid on for the staff at the hotel where my client worked. He stayed behind for a while, just to be sociable, returning home to find that the Queen was already writing next year's speech, his wife and guests gnawing at table-legs and the Christmas turkey drying-out faster than a jaikey with no giro. To make matters worse, my chap then stated he wasn't actually all that hungry.
Retreating to the livingroom, slightly ahead of a of a hail of Christmas crockery, my client was joined by his sister-in-law's partner, a man who, judging by the way he later filled the witness box, wasn't used to being kept waiting at meal times. They argued and my client ended up on the floor with one very large, angry man sitting astride him playing punch-the-face. It was at this stage in proceedings that the alleged offence was committed. My client reached out a hand, found a long-stemmed wine glass, jabbed it into the top of his attacker's head, dragged it down his face and for good measure stabbed the stem into his chest, just above the collarbone.
They say that in war it's the victors who write history; however, in fights it's the victor who gets prosecuted, and this was no split-points decision. My client was left with two black-eyes, but his opponent was left with more stitches than the Bayeaux tapestry and the doctors were left amazed at how the stem of the glass hadn't severed any major blood vessels.
As a means of defence, my client's actions had certainly been highly effective, but did they meet the legal requirements for self-defence or had the force used amounted to cruel excess? Was he guilty or not guilty? As Harry Hill would say, 'there's only one way to find out.'
His subsequent acquittal after trial meant that, in hindsight, my client had made the correct decision to plead not guilty. But let's go back to that sliding doors moment when he was in my office weighing up his options, and when, as his lawyer, I'd been duty bound to advise him of the worst case scenario and the benefits of an early plea. Let's look at each:
In the worst case universe he goes to trial, is found guilty of an assault to severe injury, permanent disfigurement and endangerment of life. He is sentenced to the maximum five years imprisonment. With remission of one-third on periods of four years or more he ends up doing three years four months.
In the parallel universe he pleads guilty. The same Sheriff who would have imposed a five year sentence, gives a one-third discount for the early plea. Sixty months becomes forty and one-half remission turns that into one year eight months. Faced with that advice, who could have blamed him from entering a guilty plea?
Guilt or innocence; it's not always cut and dried. For all sorts of reasons, sometimes justice requires a judge or jury to decide which it is after a proper test of the evidence. The knowledge that, in opting for trial, a person runs the risk of receiving up to a 100% increase in jail-time, compared to someone who pleads guilty to exactly the same allegation, seems to me, on occasion, to be unfair and a major incentive for those presumed innocent to plead guilty, rather than to let justice run its course.
We all know that there is a presumption against the imposition of prison sentences, but these days it’s difficult for solicitors, never mind their clients, to access the jail.
I remember when a solicitor could be trusted not to be a criminal; however, little by little, more and more intrusive security requirements have been introduced for prison visits. It’s like the boiling a frog analogy. First there were no checks. Then it was just a quick wave of a handheld metal-detector. Then we had to flash a Law Society ID card – that was a fiver a year you never saw again. Then came the walk-through metal-detectors and airport style baggage scanners. Now, for me, the temperature of the water has become too warm to be comfortable .
On my last visit to a client in prison, I knew from experience to leave my mobile phone in the car and only take the paper files because my briefcase would set off a DEFCON 2 situation the moment it went through the scanner. Inside the prison reception I was asked to remove my jacket and everything from my pockets, take off my shoes and my belt, my cufflinks and also my watch. Oh, and my watch couldn’t come to the visit with me. Why not? Well, apparently, it might be a special watch, and while it was nice to be mistaken for James Bond, seriously, what could I possibly do with my ancient wind-up? Whip out a length of piano wire and garrotte my client? Or maybe use it to catch the sun and signal a daring helicopter escape?
So, anyway, there I was standing in the foyer, with no idea of the time, holding my trousers up, cuffs flapping as I tried to untie my shoelaces, all the time wondering what kind of state my socks were in, when I was approached from the rear by a couple of cops dressed in black combat gear, like they were about to abseil down the front of the Whitehouse and save the President.
‘Do you have a problem with dogs, sir?’ Was a question I wasn’t expecting, bent over and only partially-clothed; however, I composed myself and replied that I’d never had any problem with dogs, providing they were quick out of the trap and I hadn’t bet too much money on them.
‘Do you have any objection to being sniffed?’ Is a question that before answering I think it only pertinent to establish just who exactly will be doing the sniffing and whether I'll be bought dinner.
As it turned out, a big, black labrador would be delegated the sniffing and, just in case I had hopes of clinging to any remaining shred of self-respect, after that there would follow a search of my oral cavity. None of this, of course, would take place in private, but in full view of everybody and anybody who happened to be hanging around the prison reception area. I never discovered whether the examination of my fillings was to be undertaken by man or dog because that’s when I brought the whole humiliating process to a halt, wondering if the untimely death of Jeremy Beedle had in fact all been a prank.
Thereafter I was visited by a series of prison officials of increasing rank and better suits, each making it very clear that I would not be allowed to visit my client unless Rover was permitted to sniff my gentleman parts and some, as yet undesigned, individual had a look inside my mouth for nail files and rope ladders. It was at this juncture I granted myself early release and returned, dignity almost intact, to the office.
How did we get here as a profession? Why is it we are held in such low esteem that we are expected to undergo this kind of degrading treatment? What is the Law Society’s view on this treatment of its members? Is it all part of a push for client/solicitor prison visits to be done via Internet?
I fully appreciate that that those visiting prisons in a private capacity should undergo security checks, but, yes, I do want preferential treatment. I’m there on business. I’m a professional. I was deemed to be a fit and proper person by the Lord President thirty years ago and haven’t proved him wrong so far. I have a Law Society ID card that gives me access to every court and police station in the UK and Europe, but when I go to prison I’m supposed to stand there with my arse hanging out my trousers, while some mutt sniffs me all over and my molars are checked like I’m some old nag at the Appleby Fair. I don't think so. This frog is jumping out of the pot before the water starts to boil or, to be less analogical, before I hear the snap of a rubber glove and the lid unscrewing on a tub of Vaseline.
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