Recent controversy about the safety of solicitors in police stations took me back to my years of being trapped with clients when the gaoler (seemingly wilfully) refused to answer the cell bell.
There was no point in complaining. It only meant a longer wait the next time. I never felt in any danger from my clients, perhaps because I foolishly thought I was big enough to be a match for them. It was just we had run out of conversation, and anyway I probably had another client in another cell.
There was certainly no danger at all at Marylebone. All custody prisoners were in a cage and it was a question of fighting off other lawyers to get near the front to talk to them. Generally speaking, clients had no great expectations of things and, provided you gave them a run, they did not seem to mind if you lost. I did, however, know one barrister who had so displeased his client that he sparred a few rounds before the gaoler came to his rescue. Even then the client had courteously waited while the barrister took off his glasses before the first punch.
I did have one diminutive assistant solicitor who was protected by the police, who refused to let her go in a cell with a verminous and unpredictable female client. Unfortunately the woman was just as small and neither could see the other through the cell door window. It made taking instructions difficult as they had to jump up alternately to deliver their message. But they managed.
Prison officers could try to wind you up over your client. When I went to see ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser (pictured), whom I was defending over his part in the Parkhurst riot, the officer in charge of visits would greet me with ‘Sit with your back to the door today and if he climbs over the table we’ll try to get to you first’ and ‘We’ve put you in the doctor’s room today. There’s a hidden bell under the desk if he attacks’.
Of course, he never did. In all the 40 years I have known him I do not think we ever exchanged a cross word, except when he complained that I had seen another prisoner before him. I had thought he would like time out of his cell chatting to his mates but, no, his prison status was such that he had to be seen first.
James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor