Legal Hackette Lunches with Courtenay Griffiths QC

ST_9968The criminal silk who represented former Liberian president, Charles Taylor, and acted in several cases that exposed police and CPS incompetence, discusses why the International Criminal Court has no future, the CPS’s decided to press ahead with the third PC Blakelock murder trial and why law should be a post-graduate subject

Courtenay Griffiths QC, the former head of chambers at right-on set Garden Court and now member of 25 Bedford Row, has been involved in some of the most high profile cases of the last 35 years.

PC Keith Blakelock trial

Looking back over his illustrious and occasionally controversial career, one of the most satisfying cases, he says, came with the acquittal at the Old Bailey last year of Nicholas Jacobs for the murder of PC Keith Blakelock, 29 years before, during the Broadwater Farm riots in 1985, when Jacobs was only 16.

Griffiths had previously been part of the defence team involved in the first murder trial in 1987, when he was lead by Michael Mansfield QC, representing one of three juveniles whose acquittals were directed by the judge. At the same trial the three adult defendants, Winston Silcott, Engin Raghip and Michael Braithwaite, were convicted, only to have their convictions quashed by the Court of Appeal in 1991.

Jacobs had been arrested in 1985, charged and convicted of affray and given an eight-year sentence. While on remand he had written a rap poem about the officer’s murder, which the prosecution later claimed contained admissions that he had stabbed Blakelock, though at the time, the police took no action and did not charge him with murder.

Recounts Griffiths: ‘The Met police mounted a second investigation into Blakelock’s death and came up with two supposed eye witnesses who named him [Jacobs] as having stabbed Blakelock.’

The pair admitted being part of the mob that attacked Blakelock and were given immunity from prosecution and anonymity if they named those involved in stabbing him.

Says Griffiths: ‘It was quite clear from their accounts that they were lying and yet they were paid thousands of pounds each by the Met police for their assistance.’

He continues the sorry saga that uncovered abuses by the police and has put PC Blakelock’s family through decades of misery: ‘Ten years go by and there’s another investigation, which uncovers a third alleged witness. All three eye witnesses were junkies and had alcohol problems.’

The case, says Griffiths, was reviewed by Alison Saunders, who was then the senior CPS officer involved, and who is now the much under-fire Director of Public of Prosecutions.

‘Under pressure from Blakelock’s widow they decided to proceed to trial last year. All three witnesses were given total anonymity. They gave evidence from behind a screen with voice modulation, so that nobody could know who they were. To this day the world doesn’t know who these witnesses were.

‘We wiped the floor with them. We destroyed them completely. The jury would have acquitted within five minutes were it not for the fact that they wanted to ask a question, so they came back the following morning, after the question was answered’ returning the not guilty verdict in the eight-week trial later that day.

Castigates Griffiths: ‘Following 28-years and three police investigations, the trial which lased eight weeks and consumed millions of pounds of public funds, should never have been brought. It was a complete load of nonsense’.

Explaining the history, he says: ‘We got a case summary from the prosecution. Jonathan Laidlaw QC, who represented Rebekah Brookes, and who was Treasury Counsel at the Old Bailey. He had written an advice as to why he thought a prosecution should proceed after all these years.

‘In the original advice it says words to the effect of “I have discussed the matters with Alison Saunders of the CPS and she agrees with me that the prosecution should proceed.”’

At the time of Jacobs’ charge, Saunders was quoted in a CPS press release saying: ‘Following a thorough investigation by the Metropolitan Police Service, we have decided that Nicholas Jacobs should be charged with the murder of PC Keith Blakelock during the disorder at Broadwater Farm in October 1985.

‘This decision was taken in accordance with the Code for Crown Prosecutors. We have concluded that there is sufficient evidence and it is in the public interest to prosecute.

But, continues Griffiths: ‘When we get to court and the whole thing starts unravelling – and by now Saunders has been appointed DPP – we raise in court that the DPP sanctioned it. All of a sudden we are told, “no. Mr Laidlaw got that wrong – Alison Saunders had nothing to do with that decision; it was her deputy so and so”.

‘It’s disgusting; it really is disgusting. So when you see these things coming out about Alison Saunders now – some of the decision’s she’s made – and she’s come under serious criticism – there’s a catalogue of this going back a while because she lacks judgement.

‘Any senior lawyer looking at the Blakelock papers would have said “this is complete crap. It’s time to put this to bed and bring some closure for Mrs Blakelock’.

First Damilola Taylor trial

Griffiths was involved in another high profile trial in which the police and CPS did not cover themselves in glory – that of the murder of schoolboy Damilola Taylor 2000.

Says Griffiths: ‘The police were so anxious to avoid a repeat of the screw up of the Stephen Lawrence case, that they forgot about evidence gathering in the normal way and thought that by using a young female who they were in effect paying to give evidence and offering inducements to inmates at Feltham remand centre, they would secure convictions’.

At the time of the trial of six youths, Griffiths recalls how he was vilified by the media and by others including the now Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, for his cross-examination of the young female witness, who it subsequently transpired had been lying.

DNA, later showed categorically that completely different young people were responsible for Damilola’s death, says Griffiths, and were it not for his doing his job in cross-examining the girl, six youngsters would be serving life sentences for something they did not do.

The International Criminal Court

The barrister, who represented the former Liberian dictator, Charles Taylor, convicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, of war crimes committed during the civil war, puts forward a damning indictment on the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

The court, established by the Rome Treaty in 2002, he says, has ‘lost international credibility’, is ‘riven with politics’ and is ‘propping up a completely corrupt and unjust system’.

He predicts that the ICC, which has in its 13 years completed only two trials, has no future and will face a funding crisis once those few defendants currently waiting trial have been dealt with.

All, but one of those arrested, indicted and charged, he says, have been African. Griffiths explains that the initial enthusiasm of the African countries, which make up the majority of the Rome Treaty’s 123 signatories, was based on their experience with dictators and pressure exerted by the European Union to sign up in return for aid.

But, he says: ‘The African Union have woken up now and smelt the coffee, and there’s a growing sentiment in Africa to withdraw’.

Last month, the ANC announced South Africa’s intention to leave, amid criticism that it had allowed the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, to leave the country, despite an order from the court that he be detained.

The indictment of Uhuru Kenyatta, in connection with post-election ethnic violence in 2007-08, and subsequent withdrawal of the charges, following his surprise victory in the 2013 election in Kenya, has fuelled opinion against the court there too.

Warns Griffiths: ‘Kenya is the biggest economy in East Africa and South Africa is the most technically advanced country on the continent. If they take the lead within the African Union and withdraw, the ICC have a really big problem. Without Africa where are they going to get another case from?’

And it is not just within Africa that he suggests the court has lost credibility. ‘Structural problems’ he claims, mean ‘it will never function’.

By way of example, he cites, the fact that while one of the routes that cases get to the ICC is through a mandate from the United Nations’ Security Council, the most important members of the Security Council are not signatories of the Rome Treaty and can operate with impunity as their decisions are not subject to the jurisdiction of the court.

‘The other problem with it is that it’s riven with politics,’ he laments, citing as an example the decision to drop the charges against Kenyatta, following his election 2013 win.

‘I predicted at the time of the election outcome that they’d never put Kenyatta on trial.’ To have done so, he says, would have ‘completely screwed up their diplomacy’.

Aside from the fact that Britain has invested billions of pounds there in farming and other industries, he says, the West need to keep Kenya onside in the fight against al-Shabaab, the Somali-based, al-Qaeda-linked group, following its attack on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping centre in 2013.

‘The ICC’s strings are being pulled from Brussels, London, Paris and Washington. That’s the big lesson I learned from the Charles Taylor experience – it has nothing to do with justice – nothing at all.

‘That’s why the ICC has completely lost credibility now and why it’s not going to get anywhere.’

He points also to the fact that there will never be any prosecutions in relation to the civil war in Sri Lanka, despite the heinous crimes committed by both sides.

‘The bottom line is this – China’s just completed building a new harbour in Sri Lanka. Think about the geo-politics of it – it’s right off the coast of India – protecting their trade routes to Africa.

‘And this is against a background of China building military bases on reclaimed islands in the South China Sea and the US and western concerns about the expansion of Chinese naval power and reach’.

He continues: ‘The last things they want to do is aggravate the president and force him into the hands of the Chinese. So everybody is studiously keeping their hands off the whole conflict. There’ll never be a war crimes tribunal there’.

Political considerations, he asserts, mean the court will never do anything about Israel in Gaza, or Tony Blair’s involvement in the Iraq war.

His experience in The Hague during Taylor’s trial, when he saw some ‘truly shocking’ practices, he says was a ‘real eye-opener’.

His verdict on the court: ‘It’s totally hypocritical. I can’t see the ICC having any future.’


Born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1955, the son of a carpenter and second youngest in a family of nine, Griffiths arrived in England aged five in 1960, with the rest of his family to join his father just before the Tory government introduced legislation limiting immigration from the black Commonwealth.

He recalls the journey on an Italian liner, which sailed around the Caribbean picking up immigrants, sailed across the Atlantic, through the Strait of Gibraltar to Genoa in northern Italy, where they were loaded onto a sealed train for the three-day journey to Calais. After taking the ferry to Dover and the boat train to Charing Cross, Griffiths met his father for the first time since he was 10 weeks old.

Griffiths’ father was working to re-build Coventry following the destruction of the Blitz, so he grew up in the post-war West Midlands in an atmosphere of overt and accepted racism.

In 1964 Peter Griffiths (needless to say no-relation) won the West Midlands seat of Smethwick, on the slogan ‘If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour” and four years later Wolverhampton South West MP Enoch Powell made his infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech about the sweeping tide of immigration.

Griffiths passed the Eleven Plus and went to the elite Bablake School, in Coventry. ‘I was the only black child in that school and there was one Asian boy – Ranesh Sharma’.

He recalls name-calling and being spat at by pupils in his first year, until his older brothers paid a visit to the school. And some staff, he says, on occasion referred to him as ‘wog’ or ‘blackie’.

The racism also manifested itself in a more insidious manner. While the other boys were encouraged to become lawyers and doctors, it was suggested that Griffiths become a policeman.

Though, he adds, he enjoyed his time at Bablake and admits to crying when he left.

And the experience, he reflects, gave him the confidence needed to do his job as a barrister. ‘You came to realise that these kids might have a different colour skin to you, but it made them no better than you at all.

‘I knew that I was as good as, if not better than the vast majority of my peers, and I had that confidence that came from competing against them and winning’.

It was against that foreground of racism at home and the background of the civil rights movement in the USA that forged Griffith’s desire at around the age of 11 to become a barrister.

Added to that was what he learned from his father’s voracious interest in politics and his admiration for Norman Manley, a prominent QC and the first prime minister of Jamaica. And television courtroom dramas gave him a fancy for being an advocate.

His interest was always going to be in criminal law, because of his sense of injustice having experienced police racism growing up. ‘We were the biggest black family in Coventry, with a police force who were openly racist.

‘Anytime anything happened in Coventry involving a black person they’d kick our door off and come in and haul my elder siblings out of bed, having pushed my father out of the way when he asked for their search warrant.

‘You didn’t need a search warrant to search a nigger’s home in 1960s Coventry.’

Legal education

With a love of history, but a desire to become a barrister, Griffiths rejected a place to read history at Worcester College, Oxford, in favour of studying law at the London School of Economics.

That decision, he states, was ‘the biggest mistake I ever made’.

‘I knew I wanted to be a barrister, but being the first person in my family to go to university I didn’t know that you didn’t have to do a law degree to qualify.’

Gaining a 2:1 he says that frankly he ‘hated the study of law’ and was disappointed that the LSE’s reputation as a hot bed of radicalism did not translate into the way it taught law.

He recalls spending most of his time playing pool and running the Africa Society, which invited Robert Mugabe over to address it.

The study of law, he suggests, at university ‘is a waste of time’ and should be a post-graduate subject, as it is in the States.

To practise law, he suggests, it is not the facts you learn at university that you need, but the ability to research the law.

So, he says: ‘Why bore yourself for three years when you can bore yourself for one year and be in the same position,’ by studying a degree you enjoy and then taking the graduate diploma in law.

In the practice of criminal law, where judgement on witness handling is crucial, he suggests students would be better off studying psychology, psychiatry, sociology or politics. Law, he says, is ‘the least useful tool’ in making the necessary tactical decisions.

Adds Griffiths: ‘I think we really need to rethink the way we go about training lawyers in this country’.

Racism at the bar

Called to the bar in 1980, Griffiths says he has experienced ‘subtle instances’ of racism rather than ‘overt’ racism.

Appearing at Camberwell Green Magistrates’ Court in the days before the Crown Prosecution Service, he recalls being redirected from the advocate’s bench to the public gallery by the police inspector in charge of the court.

He hints at questionable decisions over case allocation in his early days of practice and a ‘tone of voice’ with ‘racial implications’ from some judges.

But for the most part, Griffith does not label people’s reaction to him as racist. Rather, he suggests, it is ‘an inability to understand difference’ and ‘people having certain expectations’.

He recalls how the all-white juries at Leeds Crown Court used to gawp open-mouthed at the site of a black man in a white wig. It ‘didn’t square with their mind-set. I just didn’t fit their model of what a barrister should be’.

Consummate jury advocate, Griffiths had an icebreaker that he employed to smash through their incredulity and get them onside. ‘I’d stand up and say “ladies and gentlemen, I appreciate that it might seem strange, me standing here with this white wig and this black face, looking for the world like a pint of Guinness, with a good head though you might think”’.

Even today, he notes, there are courts where the colour of his skin ‘stops the traffic when you walk out the robing room’.

But Griffiths does not believe the courtroom is the place to tackle racial prejudice directed at him. ‘I’m not there to fight the racism I’m suffering; I’m there to present my client’s case and I’ve got to do that to the best of my ability, despite what (others) are trying to do’.

Some of his black colleagues, he fears, get distracted and fight the wrong battle, occupying too much of their ‘headspace’ worrying about what people are thinking about them.

Rather he says: ‘By fighting the battle and prioritising the battle for my client, I’m resolving that [racism] battle as well. But I’m not there to be distracted by that.

‘I’m here to do a job effectively and there’s nothing you are going to do which will deflect me from that. So that’s the attitude that I adopted in the job from the word go’.

Chairing the Bar Council’s Race Relation’s committee for several years and becoming a trustee of mentoring charity, Urban Synergy, which seeks to support inner-city young people to reach their potential, are some of the positive ways he has sought to tackle racism in the professions.

Having completed pupillage, Griffiths went to work at the Labour GLC as legal assistant to the police committee support unit, just after the Brixton riots, before a teaching stint in New York and then returning to the bar, where he developed a practice initially mainly in West Yorkshire, where he recalls, he became ‘virtually standing counsel to the drug dealers in two pubs’ following repeated police raids.

Representing one client arrested following a police surveillance operation, Griffiths recalls how he found a reference to himself. The surveillance log, he recollects, recorded ‘well-dressed black man walks into the pub – obviously a big-time dealer’.

Aware of most of the locals, Griffiths wondered to whom it referred, before realising it was he. Griffiths had gone to the pub to celebrate the acquittal of a Rastafarian gentleman, who had been beaten up the police and charged with assaulting a police officer.

Diversity at the bar

With high numbers of black students studying law and aspiring to become barristers, Griffiths is not concerned that the bar is perceived by them as a closed shop. But he is concerned that they are not being given the information to help them succeed. ‘The problem now is not understanding how to play the game’.

The bar, he says, is ‘becoming, once again, an extremely elitist profession, with 60% drawn from 10 elite university law schools, which means that ‘getting a law degree from a former polytechnic may be a complete waste of time if you want to enter the profession’.

‘Inner city kids, black and white, should be told about that reality when they’re doing their A-levels, so they can make smarter choices.

Instead of applying to study law, for which higher A-level grades are required, his advice is to study another subject for which lower grades are required, even at top universities.

‘You come out with the cache of an Oxbridge degree. So that if you then do the one-year GDL it’s difficult to distinguish between you and those who have done law at those institutions’.

Griffiths deplores as ‘criminal’ the fact that BPTC providers are allowed to charge so much to so many students, knowing that they are never going to be practice.

It means, he says, it is no longer their colour that is keeping many black people out of the profession, but the huge number of graduates, which makes the job of recruiting, by chambers or law firms, more arduous, as they have greater choice.

And, observes Griffiths, when they have that choice, they select in their own image from an exclusive group.

One commercial set, he notes, reputedly recruits almost exclusively from one college. The head of chambers pops up and offers the star of the year £80k to come and do pupillage.

His solution is a ‘more rigorous selection process for the BPTC with other safeguards in place to ensure that selection is class-blind’.

‘The selection process to get on the BPTC should be quite different. It should have nothing to do with your law degree, but it should depend on rigorous testing of the aptitude and skills you need to be a barrister – verbal presentation, the ability to research and the ability to produce an argument under time pressures’.

While the percentage of non-whites in the profession is higher than their percentage in the general population, Griffiths is concerned that the ‘vast majority are concentrated in publicly funded work’.

‘When we come to the more lucrative commercial, chancery, patent areas, the bar has basically remained unchanged,’ – white, public school and Oxbridge.

He moves on to discuss another problem – the ‘feminisation of the bar’, particularly in publicly-funded work. Most of those from non-white backgrounds who are succeeding at the bar from non-white backgrounds are female,’ he asserts.

This, he explains, is because ‘racism has historically impacted on black male and black females differently’.

‘The fear of black masculinity impacts in a completely different way to the white attitude to non-white femininity.’

And, he fears, the issues of colour and race, have been sidelined in favour of gender and socio-economic issues because people are less comfortable talking about race.

The call for judicial diversity, he suggests, has focused on gender diversity, with the same emphasis not being placed on promoting non-white judges.

But, he adds, it is not just a homogenous bench that puts off judicial applicants, particularly to the more senior posts.

‘Being a High Court judge nowadays isn’t what it used to be. You get the knighthood, but you are worked like a dog,’ and the pay does not match the workload.

‘Now they are closing down a lot of the judicial lodgings, you’d be lucky to get put up in a Holiday Inn while you’re stuck out on circuit. The status of the job has gone down quite considerably,’ he states, and many able people, from all backgrounds are put off because of the impact on their personal and social life.

‘I wouldn’t do it,’ he adds.

Criminal legal aid

Naturally the issue of criminal legal aid is close to his heart. With all the change and budget cuts, he fears that ‘we’re heading towards a public defender system similar to that in the United States’.

It will, he suggests, not be a public body in the way that the CPS is organised, but will be more of a privatised system.

‘You have large legal firms with their own group of barristers who are willing to handle high turnover, lowly paid criminal cases on a production line basis.’

Career progression, he predicts, for criminal lawyers will begin as an employed barrister within one of those large firms, and then, once you’ve built up a reputation, moving to what will be smaller sets of specialised and efficiently run criminal chambers.

‘I don’t see the end of the independent criminal bar, but it’s going to change. It’s going to shrink in size and it will be dependent for the most part on privately funded crime.’

Those chambers, he says, will do the ‘odd publicly funded case, if it’s of a sufficient profile to interest them’, but the majority of criminal cases will be’ done on a production line basis by these bigger firms’.

The status of being an employed barrister in a large firm, he observes, ‘creates a different mind-set’.

‘It becomes, as the CPS knows to its cost, a nine to five job. When as an independent barrister, your day isn’t, and never will be, nine to five’.

Senior partners, he suggests will be interested only in turnover – ‘minimum preparation and minimum presentation in court and then move onto the next case.’

‘The clear danger is that it will impact on the quality of justice and on the ability of young barristers to develop the court room skills in the way that I was able to’.

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