If ever there is a case for triple checking (what we sociologists call ‘triangulation’) what a client tells you, it is over the question of his criminal convictions, writes James Morton.
Part of the issue (whatever happened to the word ‘problem’?) is that ‘conviction’ means a number of different things to a defendant. My clients – and I’m sure a number of practitioners will have found the same – very often believed that anything less than an immediate custodial sentence counted as an acquittal. It was therefore essential not to take the client’s word but to see what the police thought his record might be.
There was another little hole dug by wily Flying Squad officers. If by chance your client did not have any convictions and you rhetorically asked the officer ‘my client is of good character?’ (the question comes with the inflection at the end), you were likely to get the reply ‘no sir’. ‘He has no convictions?’ ‘That’s not what you asked sir. He associates with prostitutes and thieves and his brother is serving a life sentence’.
You could almost see the stipe smirk. Sometimes, however rarely, it worked the other way around. I once asked a client if he had convictions and he told me he had four. When I checked his CRO form there were only two. ‘I thought you said there were four.’ ‘I got chucked on the other two,’ was the disarming reply.
Nowadays, so many offences have been declassified, officially and unofficially, that non-custodial sentences for assaults on the police, driving while disqualified and theft are the norm. Defendants can now loot from the disabled with impunity, set up long-firm frauds, drive while disqualified to the police station to sign on for their latest offence and still, within their rules, tell their solicitor they have no ‘form’.
And even when they do go down, there is sometimes a badge of honour to be worn throughout the sentence. I once defended two youths for a series of sub-post office robberies for which they received something like nine years. Counsel and I went to the cells afterwards to mention words like ‘appeal’.
‘Who was the old geezer?’ asked one. ‘What old geezer?’ ‘The geezer who potted us.’‘That was Mr Justice Melford Stevenson.’‘Forget an appeal,’ said the client, ‘we can tell our mates we woz potted by Melford.’
James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor