How Lawyer X spills the beans to the police.

There seems to be a splendid scandal brewing in Australia over the use of informants. From the police point of view these are highly desirable objects. Indeed, few cases would be solved without them.

However, there is a new twist in Victoria.  One of the principal and best informers from the past 10 years turns out to have been a defence lawyer. Apparently, police officers have been referring cases to ‘Lawyer X’, as he or she is known, and in return supplied with confidential information gathered from the clients.

Of course everyone in the game knows exactly who Lawyer X is, but there are suppression orders against him or her from being named. A retired justice of appeal has been appointed to hold an inquiry but I suspect we shall have to wait a long time for what, over there, is called ‘the wash-up’.

Of course nothing is new under the sun. At the end of the 19th century, Bill Howe (who in his formative days had done a bit of time in English prisons) and his partner Abe Hummel (who did a bit of time towards the end of his) had the biggest and murkiest criminal practice in New York. They were registered as confidential informants of the Pinkerton Detective Agency but were, however, trusted by no one. When the master criminal Harry Worth tried to sell a stolen painting of the Duchess of Gainsborough back to the insurance company, the Pinkertons, whom he had approached for advice, warned him against using Hummel.

I have been racking my brains to think who here might have had a cosy relationship with the police. Generally it was more a financial operation: money for recommendations. There was one well-known barrister (now long since dead) who, via his clerk of course, handed back 10% of his fees to the officer who had recommended him.

Off hand, I can only think of one solicitor (long since passed on) who simultaneously provided the police with information and himself with work. On one occasion he reported that a brothel was operating next to his offices. Watch was duly kept and arrests followed. The police were somewhat surprised to find the solicitor in court the next day protesting the inhabitants’ innocence.

James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor