Legal Hackette meets barrister turned crime novelist Tony Kent

Reversing the tale of the Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent donning a red cape to become Superman, the criminal barrister Tony Wyatt shed his black gown to become the author Tony Kent, even adopting his comic book hero’s surname. 

Screen Shot 2018-03-25 at 19.51.34His first novel, Killer Intent, which hit bookstores last month, spins a punchy yarn about an assassination attempt that brings together three strangers. One of its central characters, the Irish-born criminal law barrister Michael Devlin, who comes from a family of villains, bears a passing similarity to the author.

Kent, who grew up on a council estate in west London, came from an Irish family of builders some of whom, including his older brother, found themselves on the wrong side of the law. His mother was one of 17 and he has more than 100 first cousins.

“Statistically, you are going to have some who don’t go the right way,” he says.

It was during one of his brother’s skirmishes with the law that our hero, aged 14, first dreamt of life at the Bar. Captivated by his brother’s barrister, Selwyn Shapiro, Wyatt recalls: “About an hour in, I completely forgot my brother was on trial. I said to my mum, that’s what I want to do for a living.”

262bc4ce-f2ad-4c32-b31d-87df686c5830But Kent was expected to follow his father into the building trade. “My mum used to say to me, ‘that’s a nice thing to want to be, but don’t tell anybody because they’ll laugh at you’.”

An infrequent school-attender, accompanying his father on building jobs instead, Wyatt breezed through his GCSEs and A-levels and his mother finally conceded that law might be an option.

Not having applied for university, Kent got a place in clearing to study law at Dundee University, picked because its boxing club featured in its prospective (Kent is also a champion amateur boxer).

Armed with an upper-second degree, he set off to the Inns of Court School of Law. Unimpressed, he stopped attending at Christmas, preferring to teach himself from the books and work with his father to pay the £12,500 fees for the course he was not attending.

Given his way, Kent would scrap the current system of legal education, ditching the Bar course in favour of advocacy taught by practising barristers at the four Inns of Court and extending pupillage to two years.

“Bar school was absolute rubbish – it’s an excuse to take your money,” he says, pointing to the numbers of people enrolled who have no chance of becoming a barrister, many of whom, he observes, cannot speak English.

“It’s like a one-legged man hoping to play for Manchester United. I’m sorry, but you need two legs to play for Manchester United, and you need to speak English to be a barrister. I’m all for increased diversity, but you can’t do that to the detriment of something that is fundamental to the job.”

The Bar has done well at increasing diversity, he says. “I had a chip on my shoulder because I’d come from a council state.” Thinking he would have to make himself fit in, he changed his speaking voice from “sounding like a refugee from Albert Square” to more received pronunciation — something he now feels he need not have done.

“I was expecting to be the token common person up against all these Oxbridge snobs. But I couldn’t have been more wrong.”

While there were plenty of Oxbridge types at the 2 Bedford Row set in London where he was a tenant for 12 years, Kent found a mixed crowd. “One QC was the son of a scrap metal dealer, the head of chambers [William Clegg, QC] was the son of flower-sellers from Southend, my pupil master came from a council estate in Essex, and another member had been the local beat officer on my Northolt estate.”

But he warns that the Bar is being forced to take a “massive backwards step” because of the expense of training and legal aid cuts. Someone from his background, he says emphatically, would not be able to make it at the criminal Bar today.

“You’ll get into chambers but you can’t survive. The fees have been hugely reduced and a lot of the junior Bar’s work is being done by solicitor-advocates, who are forced to do it to survive because of the decimation of legal aid.

“What they’ve done to legal aid for solicitors is far worse than what they’ve done to the Bar,” he adds, pointing to the recent cuts to the litigators’ graduated fee scheme, which cut the fees for the bigger cases on which firms had relied to make their money by 40 per cent. “On all other cases, solicitors were already working at a loss.”

The only way for criminal law solicitors to survive is to do private work, he says. “The reality is that you can no longer give the standard of service needed on legal aid rates.” He adds that solicitors are telling their clients the limits of what they can do for them unless they pay privately.

“What the government can’t keep doing is relying upon the professionalism and pure moral outrage of the criminal Bar to keep doing a job we are not being paid for. The time has got to come when we say enough is enough.”

Kent is surprised that the recent scandal over police disclosure failures have not been a watershed moment, with the profession finally winning the public’s support for its cause. The problem in seeking to win hearts and minds for legal aid is that the public believes they will never find themselves wrongly accused of a crime and will never need it, he says.

But the failings that are “happening every week, and not just in sex cases, were our opportunity to say that it can happen to you — it can happen to anyone”.

Part of the problem is that the Bar puts forward wealthy white QCs as its spokespeople, he says. “They are not the most representative of the profession. It needs to put younger people at the coal face, in the media spotlight.”

Kent splits his time between writing and the criminal Bar. He practises at his own chambers, Christian-Wyatt Law, which shares premises in Storey’s Gate, Westminster, with the law firm Ewing Law, where he is associate counsel.

Specialising in serious crime, Kent has worked on some of the biggest fraud and drug cases. But his most famous client is the boxing heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua. Jeopardising his dream of competing in the London 2012 Olympics, Joshua was arrested for possessing and dealing cannabis in 2011.

“It’s always reported in the papers that he [Joshua] has a conviction for drug dealing, but he bloody doesn’t, because I got him off that,” Kent says. Joshua pleaded guilty to personal possession and was acquitted of supplying drugs, Kent helped him get his boxing licence back and, he says, “the rest is history”. Kent’s reward is ringside seats at his former client’s big matches.

His novel, Killer Intent, was a long time in the making. Kent had the idea as he was off to Bar school. A mate was amused by the fact that someone from a family of villains was going to become a barrister. “My first thought was ‘rude bastard’, but my second was ‘that’s a great idea for a book’.”

He penned the first four chapters just before starting pupillage and went back to it ten years later when he found himself tail-end Charlie in a long-running case at the Old Bailey.

Kent likes to appropriate real people’s names for his characters, with two of the main characters in Killer Intent named after his grandfather and great uncle.

He is now polishing off his second book, written while doing a case in Bristol. “If anyone in that trial reads it, they’ll recognise the name of every single barrister in that trial,” he laughs.

While he may not excel at inventing names, Kent has many more book plots in his head. But he plans to carry on at the criminal Bar “if it remains viable”.

* This interview was first published in The Brief from The Times law. Sign up here for more legal news.

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