James Morton

Joshua Rozenberg’s article on the Diplock courts (1 October) reminded me of the first case in which Richard Ferguson QC appeared in England. In some ways the tale is a template in how not to handle a client.

I was acting for a man accused of killing a security guard in a bank robbery. There was a defence to murder, as the gun had been faulty and manslaughter was a remote possibility. Like most criminals he was only really interested in how long. The first time I saw him he wanted to know whether there was any possibility of probation. I said I didn’t think so and the next time he inquired about a suspended sentence. No, I didn’t think that was on either. Four years? Possibly.

By the time we reached the committal I had worked him up to agree that seven was the minimum – if we could get a manslaughter verdict anyway. Junior counsel came to see him and we gradually worked up to a position that 18 years would be acceptable.

Then came the QC. The consultation was short. She swept into the visiting room and had hardly sat down before he asked, ‘What am I going to get Miss?’

‘If I were the judge, I’d give you 21 years,’ the silk replied.

‘You’re f**king fired. All of you.’

The silk swept out.

At the opening of the trial the defendant was refused a new solicitor and counsel. By the end of the first day he had been banished to the cells. That evening his mother called me, begging me to go and see her son. He had also written a penitent note to the judge. Yes, legal aid would be restored. No, there would be no adjournment.

I spoke to the silk’s clerk. She was already on another case and wasn’t going to be spoken to like that. I had two days to brief another silk. And that is where Dick Ferguson came in. He had just arrived from Northern Ireland and was free. His opening words to the jury were masterful, telling them of their privileged position as ‘in Ireland, where I come from, there is no such thing as a jury’.

After that they ate out of his hand. Manslaughter and 18 years. 

James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor