In the bad old days of the 1960s there were stories that briefs to counsel from certain solicitors simply read ‘Good luck’ or ‘Counsel will do the best he can’.

James Morton

James Morton

It was nothing new even then. Henry Hawkins, later Henry J, claimed that during his early days at the bar in the 1840s he had one brief which read: ‘If the case is called before 3.15pm the defence of the accused is left to the ingenuity of counsel. If it is called after that hour the defence has an alibi as, by that time, the usual alibi witnesses will have returned from Norwich where they are, at present, professionally engaged.’

I don’t think I ever encountered a professional alibi witness, but I certainly knew a man who was a professional mitigator – and a very good one at that. William was a small, shabby, balding, nondescript man who wore a large raincoat. He looked and acted like one of the men you found on a rainy Saturday morning at the local street market, sometimes with a tambourine, explaining in doleful tones how he had been saved and you could be too, if you read one of the leaflets he thrust at you and presumably acted on it.

Provided that the defendant did not have too much in the way of form, William’s line was: ‘This young lad [rarely was it a “lass”] sir, is standing exactly where I stood 30 years ago to this month. It was then Mr Justice X [I believe the name varied] who looked down on me, sir, as you are looking down on this…’

Do I really need to go further? No need for mitigation after that. He had done it all. If you felt you absolutely had to you could always add something like: ‘Well with a man prepared to do that for this youth, you may well feel…’

I believe that for a time his act was highly sought after and almost certainly well paid. More and more part-time appointments were being made and many judges hadn’t heard the spiel before.

The first time I heard it I spoke to William outside court to thank him, but he was in no mood for praise.

‘Excuse me,’ he said. ‘I’m in a bit of a hurry. I’m due at Inner London at 2pm.’


James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor