Some friends called me a few weeks ago for legal advice. It was not some complex civil problem but startling news that their son Tom had fallen in with a bad crowd, chucked his sixth form studies and virtually abandoned home. Gerry, the father, had been my pupil years ago, before quitting the tempting prospect of publicly funded work at the Bar for something financial in the City. I had last seen Tom at their home out of London four years ago: an impressionable boy and a little shy, but nothing unusual.
‘How can I help?’ I asked. ‘Worried about potential legal trouble?’ Gerry gave a short laugh of the kind that chills the blood. ‘It’s a little past that stage, William. He is in trouble and it’s going to court.’ ‘Oh dear,’ I said, ‘is it drugs?’ ‘Yes and no,’ replied Gerry. ‘I’m sure drugs are at the heart of it, but he is actually on trial for a serious wounding: part of a group who knifed a man.’ I started walking around the room with the phone in my hand. ‘Do you want me to recommend a lawyer?’ ‘No,’ said Gerry. ‘He has a good solicitor and a very competent barrister. But could you just talk to him?’ ‘Yes, of course,’ I replied with a somewhat heavy heart. ‘When is the trial?’ ‘Next week,’ said Gerry. ‘We should have called you before, but…’ His voice tailed off and I could hear the catch in his throat. I knew why they had not called.
Tom came up to London the following day and I met him in a café near Chambers. He sat on a stool being perfectly polite but avoiding eye contact. He kept putting his head in his hands and talking, as if to the floor. What came through was his fear of the impending proceedings and the terror of giving evidence in the presence of the victim’s family and friends. I said what I could, whilst calculating mentally the likely sentence upon conviction.
Returning to Chambers, I sought out Paddy Corkhill, my old friend. He was clear. ‘Go and see the trial,’ he said, ‘and let him know you’re there. Your presence will mean more than you realise, whatever his adolescent oddities.’ I mentioned his fear of testifying. ‘Half the witnesses will have screens,’ said Paddy, ‘on the basis that, in their own opinion, it will improve the quality of their evidence. Your friends’ boy isn’t entitled to special measures. He’s a defendant.’ ‘But he is presumed to be innocent,’ I reminded Paddy. ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘Doubtless that is why most Brits ask how you can defend people when you know they are guilty.’
So, two weeks ago, I entered the dilapidated, facility-free Crown Court where Tom was to be tried. It looked even worse than when I was there as a barrister over a decade ago. Going into the public gallery, I had a poor view and could hear hardly a word. I was rewarded, however, by a smile from Tom – in the dock with several young men who had difficulty concentrating, found it all very funny, and who kept annoying the dock staff by tearing up bits of paper.
The first few witnesses were bystanders. Screens were drawn across and they gave evidence out of view. The barristers questioning them had to move to the end of the row even to see them. What they said was barely audible in the public gallery. Then, some CCTV footage was played, but we could not see it. After what seemed a much shorter time than it would in counsel’s row, the judge said there would be a break. ‘There’s no coffee in the building, members of the jury; perhaps you could bring your own flask tomorrow.’ When we returned, one witness actually gave evidence in person. I could hear that a bit better. Then the screens returned. Before I knew it, we were rising for lunch. The judge explained to the jury that there was not any food available within the court precincts nowadays, even for her.
As we left, Tom’s counsel appeared. ‘I heard you might be coming,’ he said. ‘What do you make of it so far?’ ‘Not a lot,’ I replied. ‘I had never felt for myself how much of a trial isn’t in public nowadays, on a witness’ wish.’ ‘So, I suppose you will be off back to London?’ ‘No,’ I said, suddenly knowing what I was going to do. ‘I’m here for the duration.’
William Byfield* Gutteridge Chambers