Guilty Until Proven Innocent by Jon Robins

cover_9781785903694Jon Robins’ powerful and timely critique exposes the catastrophic failings in the underfunded criminal justice system, that sends innocent people to jail, and how that injustice is compounded by the failure of the the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) and the Court of Appeal to correct those wrongs.

Hot on the heels of the Secret Barrister’s Stories of the Law and How it’s Broken, which lifts the lid on the crisis in the justice system, Robins’ compelling book, launched with less fanfare, tells vividly the human story of those whose lives are devastated by the all too frequent miscarriages of justice, but who are treated as ‘collateral damage’.

More than a quarter of a century since scandalous miscarriages of justice, such as the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six, ‘shocked the public out of its complacency about the supposed infallibility of the courts’ — and despite a royal commission and ensuing reforms, Robins’ book shows how little has changed for the better.

Setting the scheme in the foreword, Michael Mansfield QC, veteran barrister synonymous with miscarriages of justice, observes: ‘It’s not that nothing has changed; it has got worse.’

British justice, says Mansfield, has been ‘diminished and demoralised’. Lawyers fees have been frozen for two decades, the austerity agenda has seen the Ministry of Justice’s budget slashed by 40%, and the criminal justice pendulum has swung dramatically in the direction of complainants.

The book is published in the wake of the narrowly avoided miscarriage of justice in the case of Liam Allan, a student whose trial for rape was halted at the eleventh hour when the prosecution disclosed thousands of previously hidden text messages that showed his innocence.

The prosecution barrister, Jerry Hayes, told the court it was the most appalling failure of disclosure he had ever encountered, and later commented: ‘This is a criminal justice system which is not just creaking, it’s about to croak.’

Screen Shot 2018-07-01 at 18.05.21Robins considers 11 cases, exploring the common ground between them to shine a light on why the system keeps failing – they feature a mixture of false confessions, police misconduct and confirmation bias, non-disclosure, over-reliance on flawed expert evidence and misconceptions about statistics and probability.

Much of the book was written during the year that the CCRC celebrated its twentieth anniversary. The body came out of the recommendations of the Runciman Royal Commission on Criminal Justice, set up on the day that the Birmingham Six were released with the aim of restoring the battered reputation of British justice.

But Robins argues that the body designed to deal with wrongful convictions is underfunded, understaffed and oversubscribed. As it comes of age, he says, it ‘appears to be becoming increasingly timid’ and provides no effective safety net.

The CCRC saw the deepest cut anywhere in the justice budget (60%). But aside from its chronic underfunding, it is dogged by concerns over its lack of independence and inbuilt conservatism. Only cases with a ‘real possibility’ of being overturned can be referred back which, critics argue, makes it second-guess the Court of Appeal and take too pragmatic a view.

On average it receives 1,500 applications a year and refers just 0.77% of cases back to the Court of Appeal – fewer than its predecessor body, the ‘shadowy and discredited home office department known as C3’.

Eddie Gilfoyle, who is fighting against a conviction for murdering his pregnant wife in 1993, is quoted saying of the CCRC: ‘It’s not independent. They are the same as the Court of Appeal. They have become the Court of Appeal. They are so scared of the Court of Appeal they might as well be the Court of Appeal’.

Lawyers are tribal creatures and often reluctant to criticise senior judges. But Robins is not a lawyer; he is a journalist and author of the website The Justice Gap and he does not shy away from such criticism.

The Court of Appeal takes a battering for its continued failure to get to grips with miscarriages of justice. The book suggests how little distance has been travelled since the bad old days of the Birmingham Six appeals.

In 1980, the then Master of the Rolls, Lord Denning, so beloved of today’s law students, ruled that the six should have no further appeals. If they won, he said, ‘it would mean that the police were guilty of perjury; that they were guilty of violence and threats; that the confessions were involuntary and improperly admitted in evidence; and that the convictions were erroneous’.

And in 1988 Denning reasoned: ‘It is better that some innocent men remain in jail than the integrity of the English judicial system be impugned.’ Cases in Robins’ book suggest in many cases, that remains the ethos of the court of appeal.

Founded in 1907, Robins describes the Court of Appeal as a ‘compromise and misnomer’ confining itself to examining only points of law, and ‘unfortunately, guilt or innocence is not a point of law’.

In his unfinished autobiography, quoted in the book, the late Tom Sargant, criticises the courts ‘unreasoning respect’ for jury verdicts and ‘unwillingness to let down the police’.

Glyn Maddocks is the solicitor for the late Tony Stock, whose appeal against his conviction for robbery has twice been referred to the court and twice rejected, even though a super-grass confessed and confirmed that Stock was not involved and the Court of Appeal’s decision has been shown to be wrong.

Maddocks slams the court for its ‘lack of willingness to engage with (or even recognise) the problem and its often intransigent, often arrogant and, dare I say, obdurate view that it knows best and is constrained by its own previous decisions, however wrong they may have been’.

‘The Court of Appeal does not do apologies’ says Robins, and even on the rare occasions that it does quash wrongful convictions there is often an appearance that it does so through gritted teeth.

He sites the case of Sam Hallam, one of the youngest victims of a miscarriage of justice. He was convicted aged 17 for a gang-related murder and spent seven years in prison. His father took his own life during his imprisonment, as a result of his son’s ordeal. There was no sympathy expressed by the court for Hallam, says Robins – ‘in fact, there was more than a suggestion that the then seventeen-year-old was the architect of his own fate’.

More shockingly, Robins shows the impact on the lives of those who are wrongly convicted — many lose not just their liberty and livelihood, but their friends and family, and come out of prison deeply damaged people, suffering depression, paranoia and post-traumatic stress disorder.

When a conviction is quashed, the wrongly convicted person often walks out with no notice or preparation, with less state support than other prisoners receive. Their only source of help is the Royal Court of Justice’s miscarriage of justice support service, run by Citizens Advice. In 2011, it is reckoned that one third of its clients found themselves homeless after being freed.

‘My sentence started when I was released,’ says Paddy Maguire, the youngest of the Maguire Seven, arrested aged 13 and wrongly convicted for an IRA bombing campaign in the 1970s.

When a conviction is quashed the Court of Appeal does not reinstate the presumption of innocence; it almost never offers an unequivocal declaration of innocence. And those who have been wrongly convicted are rarely entitled to compensation.

Tony Blair’s Labour government scrapped ex gratia payments for victims of miscarriages of justice and the coalition government limited compensation to those who can demonstrate their innocence ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ – so much for the presumption of innocence and, as Robins states, those whose convictions are overturned are ‘innocent – and yet not innocent enough’.

Sam Hallam and Victor Nealon (who served 17 years for a crime he didn’t commit and left prison with three hours notice, £46 in his pocket and a train ticket to Shrewsbury) have challenged this position and are waiting for a judgment form the Supreme Court.

‘The cases in this book should send shivers down the spines of every law-abiding citizen,’ states Rod Hayler, of Old Bailey Solicitors, in the preface. It is a book that informs, shocks and demands a response. It demands justice.

Guilty Until Proven Innocent is published by Biteback Publishing  and costs £12.99

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Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken – by The Secret Barrister

7f8849bc-20ef-4018-8d85-624f3d39f893“The system is f***ed and nobody gives a s***” might be the tweet that sums up the Secret Barrister’s (SB) 343-page indictment on the damage wrought to the criminal justice system by successive penny-pinching governments.

The anonymous barrister, who since 2015 has in equal measure informed and entertained its almost 88,000 followers, has taken things a stage further, penning the much anticipated Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken, which hit all good book stores this week.

With clarity and eloquence the 12 angry, passionate, frustrated chapters shout their unanimous and damning verdict on a system “close to breaking point”.

The author lays bare the result of the wrong-headed, short-sighted, politically expedient and dishonest drive to prosecute and defend on the cheap, warning that “we are moving from a criminal justice system to simply a criminal system”.

The book recounts everyday tales of injustice and a “culture of error” arising from avoidable failings by the underfunded and understaffed police and prosecution services, allowing “provably guilty people” to walk free.

The “current state of our criminal justice system should terrify us” the author writes, whose raging against the machine is equalled only by astonishment at the “wall of silence” and “collective indifference” of the public to the parlous state of affairs.

“What astounds me most is that people don’t seem to care. Or even know… If the criminal justice system were the NHS, it would never be off the front page.”

A working criminal justice system is “essential to the peaceable democratic society”, serving to “protect the innocent, protect the public and protect the integrity, decency and humanity of our society”, the author writes. “This should be a societal baseline. Not a luxury.”

SB laments that the public do not feel invested in the system because they believe it does not directly affect them, luxuriating in the misplaced confidence that they will never be wrongly accused of a crime.

To reinforce the contention that anyone, even the author’s readers, could find themselves arrested, charged, wrongly convicted and imprisoned, with the consequent losses of job, relationships, reputation and freedom, the writer invents an injustice that befalls a fictional doctor. This seemed unnecessary and risks undermining the book’s central thesis if a real life example could not have been extracted from the barrister’s decade in practice.

For the public’s complacency, SB partly blames the criminal Bar itself, accepting that “for professional advocates, we do a strikingly bad job of explaining what we do or why it matters”.

Through a mixture of history, practice and anecdote, SB provides a whistle-stop guide to why the system is how is, including a comparison with the inquisitorial alternative to our adversarial system – concluding that the latter trumps the former because the state alone is not always competent or honest and cannot be trusted to find the truth.

But some of the most damning and deliciously scathing prose is reserved for the chapter comparing jury trials with the cheaper “pantomime” justice dispensed to 94 per cent of defendants by the “socially, culturally and ethnically homogenous” and “pro-prosecution” magistracy.

The inexcusable “bargain basement retail model of justice” is condemned as “roulette framed as justice” where decisions are “inconsistent, irrational and, at times, plainly unlawful”.

We are reminded that the still mainly white, middle-aged and middle class body was dominated by freemasons until the 1990s, and the “jolly, willing amateurs” of today are compared to the “admissions board of a 1980s country club” who are “lording it over” young, working class and ethnic minority defendants.

The “sinister pincer” of legal aid cuts, forcing many quality barristers and solicitors to quit and making room for shonky practitioners who care nothing for their clients or justice, is condemned as unnecessary. While the oft-peddled myth used by governments to justify the slashing, that “we have the most expensive legal aid system in the world”, is well and truly busted.

SB shines a light on the unfairness of what it terms the “innocence tax” — under which acquitted defendants, forced through their ineligibility for legal aid, to instruct lawyers privately are permitted only to reclaim their expenses from the state at the much lower legal aid rates.

In contrast, the writer highlights the “final desultory boot in the genitals of justice” (my favourite phrase in the book) – which permits those who have put others to the expense of defending failed private prosecutions to reclaim the cost of doing so at virtually whatever amount.

There is high praise for those committed and hard-pressed criminal solicitors, whose dedicated work keeps “the prosecution honest” and decreases the chances of the innocent being convicted. But with that comes the warning that their job “is increasingly under peril”.

At risk of advancing what the writer accepts “may look like the most unattractive special pleading in pinstripes”, the trials and tribulations of the criminal barrister — long hours, pay sometimes below the minimum wage, lugging bags across the country and a diary subject to change at a judge’s command — are set out.

The identity of the Secret Barrister remains, well … a secret. We are told it is because writing anonymously “brings the freedom to be candid”. Given the stinging content of some of the chapters, it seems likely that the fear of losing instructions from the Crown Prosecution Service or exposing clients to wrathful magistrates are also strong incentives.

We do learn that SB is, by the author’s own admission, a modest, “not particularly special,” jobbing barrister, prone to “imposter syndrome”, who was called about ten years ago.

Despite what is “in many ways an intolerable existence” SB loves the “irresistibly special” job that provides “reward for the soul if not the purse”, and amid the “counsel of despair” clings to the “naïve, hopeless hope” that things might get better.

Nothing in the book will come as news to anyone who has had even remote contact with the broken criminal justice system.

SB’s challenge is to spread the word beyond the echo chamber of the adoring legal twitterati — the book certainly deserves a wider audience. But as the author might readily acknowledge, public indifference means it is unlikely to get what it deserves.

* A shorter version of this review was first published by The Brief from The Times law. For more legal news and comment sign up here.

Liberty Truck by Laurie Slade

thumbnail_Group photo post show 1‘Isn’t it a basic principle of our great British justice that we’re all equal before the law?’ asks the court interpreter, played by Finty Williams, in director Joe Harmston’s latest star-studded performance in aid of the Kalisher Trust.

Liberty Truck had its premier in the grand surroundings of Middle Temple Hall on Sunday evening, combining the glamour of stage and screen stars with the ugliness of racial injustice. There were star turns from Simon Callow, (who told LHB he had read all the Henry Cecil books and wanted to be a barrister, but was put off by the length of training and realised he only liked the acting part of the job) Edward Fox, Ray Fearon and Hugh Dennis, as well as a cameo performance from the former Tory attorney general, Dominic Grieve QC.

O61A6516-114Presented in the form of a radio play, the piece, written by Laurie Slade is based on the trial, R v Tharacithio, which took place in 1945 colonial Kenya. The accused, whose name has been changed to Miriithi, (played by John Kamau) is a young African who drives the army truck, the Liberty Truck, from which the play derives its title. He is accused of the rape and murder of British servicewoman, Josephine Aston, given the name Cynthia Martin, and played by Olivia Darnley.

As Miriithi is put on trial, so too is British justice. In the colonies, the trial procedure was determined by whether the accused was black or white. The right to trial by jury was confined to Europeans. Africans and Asians were tried by a judge alone with three local assessors.

The case against the accused is based on circumstantial evidence, which the pompous and slightly inebriated prosecutor, played by Callow, insists ‘has the advantage over the evidence of living people – because living people may be mistaken or lie’.

O61A6615-161The trial moves towards the inevitable conclusion. For a brief moment the audience thinks Muriithi might be found not guilty, after all three of the African assessors (played by Ray Fearon, Israel Oyelumade and Eugene Washington) find insufficient evidence to convict him.

But, in the colonial courts the British judges were not bound by the local assessors – whose views were merely advisory – and Muriithi is condemned to death.

Though the audience is left in no doubt, the interpreter confirms the inescapable truth that ‘if Muriithi was white, he’d have been acquitted.’ By highlighting the indefensible iniquity of the discrimination in the colonial experience of British justice, Liberty Truck seeks to shed light on contemporary racial injustice.

O61A6597-152As Slade penned the script, Labour MP David Lammy was poised to publish his review on the treatment of, and outcomes for black, Asian and minority ethnic individuals in the criminal justice system.

Lammy’s report found that black and minority ethnic individuals still face bias, including overt discrimination, with a disproportionate number of black people being sent to prison. It reported that while black people make up 3% of population in England and Wales, they account for 12% of the prison population, and that young black people are nine times more likely to be locked up than their white peers.

Lammy also found that problems of covert and unconscious bias are becoming more apparent and that the lack of diversity (7% of judges have a black or ethnic minority background) in the judiciary affected the trust that non-white individuals had in the system – they even distrusted their own legal aid solicitors, seeing them as representing the ‘system’ rather than them.

O61A6637-177The playwright was born and brought up in Kenya. He studied law at Oxford, was called to the bar by Lincoln’s Inn, enrolled as an advocate of the High Court of Kenya and practiced law for 25 years in Nairobi and London.

Slade’s father was the real life defence barrister portrayed in Liberty Truck, played by (Hugh Dennis) and much of the dialogue is drawn from the transcript of the trial. The case, he says, ‘haunted’ his father, who remained convinced of the innocent of the accused.

Of the play, Slade says: ‘It’s a good courtroom drama – an innocent man is wrongly accused.’ But, it is more than that. ‘Equality before the law is a cardinal principle of British justice – the Liberty Truck shows the ease with which that principle was disregarded in the heyday of the British empire – and serves as a reminder that maintaining that principle requires vigilance today,’ he says.

The play raises the issue of what reparation is owed to those who have been wronged in the colonial era. Towards the end, an exchange between the interpreter, Martha, and the defence barrister, Steadman, suggests the answer:

O61A6543-129Martha: How many goats? For the death of that innocence? How many sheep? How many cows? The blood money. How can we ever pay – when it’s our turn to make reparation?

Steadman:   Reparation for what?

Martha:     The guilt of our people?

Steadman: Don’t despair. Change is coming, you know. The likes of us will be having to choose – where and with whom we stand. Do we stick with our tribe or work it out together – every race and colour? It’ll be about trust then, won’t it? Can we trust them? Can they trust us? Dear God – it’s taken judicial murder to make me to see – how – how can we win their trust? We’ve so far to go. So much to do….

O61A6579-149Steadman tells Martha: ‘Find your own way to make that reparation.’

The play seeks to fulfil the director’s desire, not just to entertain his audience and wow them with his impressive contact book, but to challenge it to think about important contemporary issues of law and society.

‘Last year we looked at the first 100 years of women in the legal profession [in Alex Giles’ The Disappearance of Miss Bebb] and we thought it would be perfect to shift the focus to race and equality on the face of the law and in the justice system,’ says Harmston.

Considering the contemporary issues raised by Liberty Truck, he explains that while everyone in England and Wales, regardless of their ethnicity, is tried according to the same procedure, it is still largely administered by ‘a group of white, Oxbridge men who have no connection to the lives of the people before them’.

The problem, he suggests, is not that the judges are racist – indeed, he is impressed by the ‘efforts and determination of the judiciary to be fair’ – rather, he states ‘it is about visible representation’.

Harmston is concerned that legal aid cuts and the cost of legal education creates a ‘huge danger’ of the profession taking a backward step on diversity just as change was happening.

‘That’s why charities like the Kalisher Trust are so important. We can’t change everything, but we can make a small contribution,’ he says.

More generally, he is keen to guard against the ‘echo chamber’ of social media, in which it has become ‘easier to avoid engaging with contrary opinions and languish in unchallenged righteous indignation’.

Theatre, he says can help: ‘Great theatre, like advocacy, is a conversation. Drama and law rely on the dynamic power of questions. The best evenings in the theatre are not the ones which confirm everything the audience expected when they walked in; they are the ones which leave people arguing about what they have experienced as they walk out.’

He hopes Liberty Truck will begin a conversation that contributes to ‘our finding ways, however small to make the world we live and work in a more equal and fair place’ — a worthy ambition for a play that definitely deserves a wider audience and has all the makings of a Merchant Ivory-style film, a la A Passage to India.

Photographs by Charlotte Bromley Davenport.

Consent – A play by Nina Raine

BenChaplinEdwardinConsentbyNinaRaine.PhotobySarahLeeThe justice system is put on trial and the foibles of criminal barristers scrutinised in Nina Raine’s new play Consent, which opened at the Dorfman Theatre in London last week.

It uses the insecurities, inadequacies and infidelities of a group of fairly unlikeable middle class Londoners and the incredulity of a working class woman who says she was raped, to critique the impersonal nature of the law and its relationship with justice, and address big issues of truth, punishment, forgiveness, class, and relationships. All of which leaves the viewer pretty exhausted.

The set is minimal, with suspended lampshades giving the feeling of being in the John Lewis lighting department.

Four of the characters are criminal barristers, who on the whole do not come off well, portraying their profession as superior, arrogant workaholics with deeply dysfunctional relationships.

The question of whether they were always like that or whether a daily diet of rape, murder and violence has corroded them, is left unanswered.

Their behaviour is keenly observed in a play that has been immaculately researched. In the programme, which includes essays from Baroness Helena Kenndy, Alex McBride and Iain Morley QC, thanks are given to Matrix barrister and clerk, Jessica Jones and Alison Scanes, 7 Bedford Row’s Rachel Darby and Daniel Coombes and Helen Greenfield at Family Law in Partnership.

The characters speak of themselves as though they were their clients. ‘I’ve been raping pensionsers … I tie them up, I fuck them, and then I nick their stuff, says Jake, played by Adam James.

Two of the friends, who actually despise each other, are pitted against each other in a rape trial. ‘I raped this woman, London lady, no witnesses, she’s a bit of a drinker, so am I, her word against mine’, says Ed (Ben Chaplin) who sees his clients as an opportunity to hone his range of impressions.

Against him is the repressed and perpetually single Tim (Pip Carter), who read classics at university. For all his book-learning, he is hopelessly awkward when it comes to explaining the trial process to the frightened and angry complainant Gayle, played with real emotion by Heather Craney.

PipCarterTimHeatherCraneyGayleinConsentbyNinaRaine2She is baffled by the niceties of the process that mean her alleged rapist has a lawyer, but she does not, and that evidence of her mental health issues can be used to undermine her, while the defendant’s previous convictions cannot go before the jury.

Her question to the prosecutor ‘Are you on my side?’ turns to the plaintiff cry ‘But it happened to me’, when told she is merely a witness in the Crown’s case.

Later, she turns up at uninvited at Ed and Kitty’s (Anna Maxwell Martin) Christmas drinks party, indicting the ‘fucking useless’ prosecutor whom she only met five minutes before the trial. Her verdict on the system in which she watches two barristers ‘fight it out’ is that it’s a ‘fucking mess’.

AscenefromConsentbyNinaRaine.PhotographerSarahLeeDefending the process, Ed trots out the stock justification that ‘we presume innocence, because better a guilty man goes free than an innocent go to jail’.

Warming to this theme, he tells her: ‘The law’s not going to work according to your emotions, Gayle, because it’s got to be dispassionate, it’s got to be impersonal ‘.. it’s not about satisfying your personal sense of outrage, because if it was, it wouldn’t be fair and that is the whole fucking point’.

The cynic’s view of the barrister is given in two lines – Kitty tells her husband Ed ‘you tease people for a living’ and Rachel, vexed by Jake’s dishonesty, screeches ‘He says he’s a terrible liar. That’s a lie. He does it for a living’.

While Tim and Ed give a master class in the art of advocacy to their dippy actress chum Zara (Daisy Haggard), who is auditioning for the part of a criminal barrister with no home life, who speaks Mandarin and rollerblades.

They explain that advocacy is basically ‘a fight between two opposing narratives’ in which the defence’s role is to ‘pick your way through and convince the jury of one simple line’.

After the nice open questions by the crown to set the narrative, the defence ‘fuck up that narrative,’ bending perceptions to put an idea in the jury’s head.

As their oratory turns more personal and bitter, they deliver more tips:

  • Use spectacles –‘ Pick ’em up, put ’em down, they engage the listener when you’re about to speak…And they make you look cleverer’
  • Don’t be afraid of silence. Use it to create tension
  • Tell the witness they disagree with you, to close them down and box them in
  • get a rhythm going, play dirty, don’t look at the witness but straight ahead, and bounce your case off them
  • create an embarrassment or look for the ‘leaver’ For example:

EDWARD: Do you find my wife attractive, Tim?

TIM: No

EDWARD: You’re saying my wife is not attractive, am I right?

TIM: No.

EDWARD: So she is an attractive woman, my wife, you would say, Tim?

TIM: Yes.

EDWARD: And yet you don’t find her attractive, is that right? You said earlier my wife is an attractive woman. Then you say you don’t find her attractive. Which is the lie?

Ed explains: ‘It’s a sort of trapdoor. You ring-fence around, locking off escape routes. And then you pull the lever. You drive an unanswerable rhetorical wedge between the answers’.

  • And, ‘when you don’t know what the hell else to do’, ‘repeat their answer slowly, like they’ve fucked up, and let it hang in the air’.

As the play goes on, the characters’ seemingly perfect lives crumble, exposing their dysfunctional relationships and hidden grievances. In their personal lives, the pedantic legal language and adversarial techniques of the courtroom prove inadequate.

When Edward is accused of marital rape, he becomes as jabbering and hesitant, under the cross examination of his friends as any defendant in the dock, proffering similar defences – ‘I thought I was showing passion’; ‘she said no a couple of times, but so did I’.

Sticking by her accusation, Kitty says: ‘It’s my truth’. To which her husband protests: ‘It’s not the truth.’

Attempting to placate the pair, their friend Jake (Adam James) observes: ‘There’s a world in which you’re both telling the truth. But that’s not the law. In court, your narratives are oil and water. They can never mix. One of you will win. And one of you will lose.’

AnnaMaxwellMartinKittyBenChaplinEdwardHeatherCraneyLaurainConsentbyNinaRaine.PhotographerSarahLeeIt is Kitty’s turn to be exasperated by the law, this time the family justice system, when she is advised that the alleged rape is not relevant to residence proceedings because rape. Like pornography and prostitutes, is ‘not damaging to the child’.

Ed’s concession that ‘technically’ he raped her, poses the question of whether there can be degrees of rape.

Consent is a play very much de nos jours, touching on current polemics and trends, with wit and comedy moments, mostly of a sexual nature.

The somewhat clichéd line from Kitty that ‘You can’t legislate for human behaviour’ sums up the tension at its heart.

Consent runs until 17th May

The Disappearance of Miss Bebb — A play by Alex Giles

gwyneth-bebb-0071-1hd9z11On Sunday evening the Kalisher Trust turned the clocks backs 100 years to a time when the legal profession was exclusively male, presenting the world premier of lawyer/playwright Alex Giles’ play, The Disappearance of Miss Bebb.

It recounts the life and efforts of its pioneering eponymous heroine who, with three other women, in the test case Bebb v The Law Society sought to open the legal profession to women.

Having had their £4 fee to sit the preliminary exams returned, she sought a declaration from the court that she was a ‘person’ within the meaning of the Solicitors Act 1843, and was therefore entitled to be admitted. ‘When is a person not a person?’ asks Bebb, played with passion by Laura Main, Call the Midwife’s Sister Bernadette. Answering her own question: ‘When she’s a woman’.

thumbnail_IMG_1772The highs and lows of their campaign are interspersed by commiseratory teas at Simpsons on The Strand over ‘indifferent fruit cake’ rather than celebratory champagne and with a cameo performance by Lady Hale, playing Crystal MacMillan, activist and one of the founders of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

Bebb was the only woman in her year to read law at Oxford – a ‘wholly unsuitable subject for a young woman’ according to her hostile mother who constantly chides her for her ambition, and would rather she were more like her conventional sister who is content to be a wife, even of an abusive husband.

‘If you love the law so much, why not find a solicitor to marry. What’s wrong with being a solicitor’s wife?’ she tells her errant daughter.

Presented in the form of a radio performance, an all-star cast dressed in dinner suits or frocks, read their lines into old-fashioned microphones, complete with sounds effects of crying babies and trains created by members of the cast.

thumbnail_IMG_1769Martin Shaw, of Judge John Deed fame, plays Bebb’s barrister, Mr (later Lord) Stanley Buckmaster KC, who tries valiantly to persuade the court that just because there has never been a woman lawyer in England and Wales, the law does not prohibit it.

 thumbnail_IMG_1762The misogynistic, pompous and curmudgeonly judge, Mr Justice Joyce, was played by President of the Queen’s Division, Sir Brian Leveson. He returned to the company, having previously been called upon, post his great enquiry into the behaviour of the press, to play a newspaper seller in an Agatha Christie play.

Despite Buckamster’s efforts, Joyce rules that women were incapable of carrying out a public function in common law, a disability that must remain ‘unless and until’ Parliament changes the law.

The play also recounts the efforts of Mr (later Major) Hills MP, played by actor Hugh Dennis, to get the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 passed by Parliament. Pre-war and with opposition from the Law Society, Bar Council and City of London Solicitors’ Company, his bill failed.

thumbnail_IMG_1770Reflecting the tone of the argument, one opponent, calling himself ‘A country Solicitor’ wrote in a letter to The Times newspaper: ‘If the Law Society does not oppose this proposal by every means in its power and block the Bill in Parliament as often as it appears, the society deserves to be wiped out of existence and a newer and more effective organization for the protection of our bread-and-butter set up in its place.

‘There is only one bright spot in the proposal to admit women as solicitors, and that is, that the public well know that there was yet a woman who could keep her mouth shut on other people’s affairs.’

After the war, once women, in the absence of male fighters, had run the family law firms, and the death of brothers meant father’s wanted to pass on their firms to their daughters, attitudes shift and the Bill finally made it onto the statute book.

It transpires that Bebb fancies life at the bar, prompting Buckmaster’s incredulous response: ‘If you think the Law Society is a tough nut to crack, the Bar Council is impregnable’.

Having been refused admission in 1918, successfully reapplies after the act, to be admitted as a student barrister at Lincoln’s Inn.

Recalling her first dinner at the Inn, Bebb utters words that surely pass the lips of all would-be barristers: ‘It was magical – one of the best days of my life. I felt a bit like a debutante enjoying my first ball’.

thumbnail_IMG_1775Bebb did fulfil her mother’s ambition for her — she married a country solicitor – Thomas Thomson, played by actor Ray Fearon. With patience, he woes the fiercely independent Bebb, giving her a brooch in the shape of the scales of justice and Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc.

Alas, she never fulfils her dream of becoming a barrister, dying aged 31 after the birth of her second daughter.

Her death certificate labelled her simply ‘wife of a solicitor’. Incensed by the final indignity served by society on her gal pal, her co-campaigner Maud Ingram amends it in thick black pen to read ‘OBE, MA Oxon, Barrister-at-law.’

thumbnail_IMG_1777One hundred years on, while many of the views expressed to exclude women may seem laughable today, the attrition rate of female lawyers, gender pay disparity and lack of senior female judges, shows there is still much for twenty-first century Bebb’s to fight for and much for the professions still to do.

My Country Right or Wrong – A play by Nigel Pascoe QC

Inner Temple’s wood-panelled Parliament Chamber was the setting for a cast of 17 to present a thought-provoking evening of dramatised reading examining the legality of the Iraq war. picture-122-1424101221

The writer was Pump Court Chambers’ Nigel Pascoe QC, who has previously brought audiences his one-man show, The Trial of Penn and Mead. He had done a volte-face on his view of the war, initially supporting British PM Tony Blair and his reliance on the so-called ‘dodgy dossier’.

His change of heart prompted his own forensic analysis of the evidence – the result of which was the play – My Country Right or Wrong.

Pascoe, who narrated the story, had put together newspaper cuttings, minutes of meetings, parliamentary debates and other documentary sources, read by the cast who played the dramatis personae involved in the unfolding disaster, with a lone violinist striking up to mark the most portentous moments.

Among them 5RB’s Iain Christie (a former legal adviser to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who has acted for the government in high profile cases before the European Court of Human Rights) played a rather wet Blair, Gareth Frow brought to life US president George Bush, with a comedy Texan accent, before later doubling up as Geoff Hoon MP and Greg Dyke, while Simon Walters took the part of an excitable US reporter before flatting his vowels to morph into William Hague.

Seated in a wide semi-circle, the cast rose sombrely to their feet to deliver their lines, and positioned, as they often were, on opposite sides of the room gave the audience the feeling of being at Wimbledon.

The play is directed towards an imaginary jury – the audience, which during Friday’s performance included a tiny pooch.

Barrister and actor John Bromley-Davenport prompted the jury to consider the evidence, on occasion remarking, in the manner of Michael Dobb’s fictional chief whip Francis Urquhart, ‘You make think that, I couldn’t possibly comment’, before finally asking ‘How say you?’

And the verdict – an interesting run down of the events, recalling the big parliamentary speeches and key moments, that could have benefited from greater pace and a little editing – though not in the manner of the infamously ‘sexed-up’ intelligence report.

Reluctant thumbs up for revamped Fleet Street watering hole

FOT1172666El Vino, historically the boozer where the gossipy worlds of lawyers and hacks collided, in the glory days of Fleet Street before the presses stopped rolling, opened its doors in 1879 and remained in the ownership of its founding family until its sale to chain, Davy’s, last summer.

The sale sparked concern among stalwarts who have remained loyal to the wine bar, infamous for not allowing women at the bar until 1982 and famed for its portrayal as Rumpole of the Bailey’s haunt, Pomeroys.

Further disquiet was abroad at the start of the summer, when the bar shut for a week for a quick refurb. But fears that its quaint olde worlde character, beloved by American tourists, would be stripped away, were unfounded.

A fresh lick of paint, albeit in a colour dubbed by one punter as ‘gr-eige’, new lighting, the removal of the security bars which had covered the skylight and a spot of cleaning, have made El Vino lighter and brighter.

The lino that replaces the carpets and fools no-one into thinking it is wooden floor boards, looks cheap, and several have bemoaned the introduction of music, but the free wifi is a most welcome addition.

To retain the character, some of the old chairs embossed with the names of their former occupants including Sir Colin Cole’s, remain, but fake green leather banquets have been installed, softening the appearance of the place.

And while the walls are still adorned with traditional prints, those who pay close attention to such things, will observe the absense of the portrait of Madame Veuve Cliquot.

The manager said that the changes had received a positive reaction, and that seemed the consensus of the steady flow of patrons on a Thursday lunchtime — not all of whom would have met El Vino’s historic dress code, which dictated ties for men and skirts for women.

Two barristers who have been frequenting the joint for the last 14 years gave their verdict. The first: ‘I’ve been complaining about the two inches of bird shit covering the skylight for the last 15 years, but now it’s gone, I miss it.’

While the second described the line of spotlights facing the far wall ‘daring’ and determined that while ‘the food is better, the booze is worse’.

The menu has been changed in line with the fare on offer at all of Davy’s other establishments, with the addition of specials, and the wine list of the two outfits is being rationalised, with some old favourites set to be discontinued — though, I am assured the house Claret will remain.

A lone luncher, who happened to be a hack from Australia, and who had wanted to check it out for some time, found him self there due to problems with the trains.

His opinion: ‘I was surprised how light and airy it was, given its reputation, but that’s no bad thing. Despite the new look, it’s pretty much how I imagined it would look’.

Another huddle of lawyers, who have been going there for the last 40 years, formed the consensus that they ‘reluctantly approved’ of the facelift.

‘It could have been a lot worse and that hasn’t happened, which is a good thing.’