Monday, 27 April 2015

The Tuesday Truth

Diary of a Higher Court Advocate
by Alexia Nicol Solicitor at Edward Fail Bradshaw and Waterson
As I sprinted out of the door to head to the police station last week, the fateful words ‘Have you seen the email with the listing?’ were politely hollered in my direction.  I had not. 

The joy at 15.59 of hearing that your warned list trial has made an appearance in tomorrow’s listings, delightfully transferred from a local court to the Old Bailey, is a special one.  With the added bonus of knowing that you need to finish at the police station swiftly otherwise preparation will be well in to the small hours.

The distressed client at the police station didn’t need to know this.  He didn’t need to know it would take me at least an hour and a half to get home on public transport before I could even begin to tackle my trial preparation.  He just needed to know that he was going to receive solid legal advice and a representative who would do their best to protect his interests.  Fortunately, it was a straightforward theft.  Unfortunately, the Complainant was the partner of the client.  Not a unique position to be in, but he was also her carer and the only person who could look after her that evening.  His concern was for her well being.  He presented no physical risk to her, (he had borrowed her car without asking). Not ideal but neither was her being left bed ridden without care.  It took some time to make representations to ensure he could be released to tend to her following charge.  It was important that these representations were made for him and also for her, she wanted him home. 

I finally got home and began the trial preparation. I spent the next few days at the Old Bailey fighting legal argument fires and generally guiding a young man through a difficult trial with a vulnerable witness.  Every so often I would catch him looking at the marble floor and the statutes, feeling very out of his depth.  The trial should never have been listed as a floater, should never have been transferred to the Old Bailey and the Judge knew it too, referring to the listing repeatedly.  Too late for the witness who had stress induced fits when  told at short notice the case would be heard there, with no court allocated and no real reason for this explained.  He required professional and careful cross examination.  I had to balance properly putting my client’s case whilst being as swift as I could.  The witness had been waiting all morning and his condition was of concern to Matron.  Matron provides an invaluable service.  Never have the words ‘Two paracetmols and off you go’ meant so much to smooth running justice as when said by Matron.      

The week was rounded off with a busy Central London scheme.  I represented a duty client who was outraged at being arrested for shouting and spitting at his son (a boy in his early teens).  The client strongly denied the allegation. It was a strange and unhappy coincidence that the allegation made was closely aligned to the way  he behaved at the police station.  In consultation, he began by shouting loudly and repeatedly at me.  Eventually I was able to calm him down enough to be able to advise him properly.  As I sat, sagging slightly in my chair at 2am, the interview drew to a close.  The client took a dislike to the officer and demanded some fresh air.  As he attempted to leave the interview room, he squared up to the officer and began to shout in his face.  I am sure the officer also found the coincidence striking.  I was able to calm the client down and deal with the rest of the case as best I could without any further incident.  Apart from a heated goodbye (can you believe he shouted at me, again?!) when I had to leave because there was nothing more that could be done until a decision was made.  This was not a client who would appreciate an explanation of fixed fees and the need for me to finally end my day of work…

It was a fairly standard week.  To be honest, a trial at the Old Bailey is always a treat.  Having been a HCA for years now, I am perfectly content at the Crown court.  I caught up with both barristers and HCAs I know well in the robing room and we all generally bemoaned the state of the system, shared horror stories and offered advice on thorny issues.  I grabbed the odd cup of tea in the Bar Mess and perhaps as a throw back to my clerking days; part of me still wonders if I am really allowed in there.  Whilst things have changed massively from when I first donned a wig, occasionally you meet a barrister who eyes your gown with suspicion, laughs too loudly and might as well say ‘some of my best friends are solicitor advocates’.  For what it is worth, having now committed myself to advocacy pretty much full time, my view is we all have a job to do.  It is hard and it is stressful and the rewards feel scant.  We are all doing what we can to get through these tough times, but the reason we do it is because people deserve proper representation.  I don’t care what shape your gown is, if you can do the job that is what matters.  I would like to think most professionals agree.

When I began my career in criminal law, I do not think I ever imagined my working life would be like this.  That it would seep effortlessly into my evenings and weekends.  That I would earn slowly less and less money for doing more and more work.  That skill and experience is rarely rewarded in any real sense other than the warm glow of knowing you have secured the right result for a client.                                                                                                                                                                                                 

I remember telling people when I first started my training contract that representing these people was a privilege.  That I get to see them in a way most people do not.  I see the person behind the charge sheet and can have some understanding into why they have ended up needing legal advice and I can hopefully help them through what one of the hardest times of their lives.

If dual contracts and further cuts come in, I am genuinely concerned that there will be no one left to care.  That the innocent, the vulnerable and the addicted will be left to face the might of the State alone.  That simply can not be.  We’re all taught that ‘crime does not pay’, but if that includes the skilled lawyers then it is really is the beginning of the end of fair and proper Criminal Justice in this country. 

Alexia Nicol

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