Passing the Guildhall in London the other day, I remembered how there used to be just a single lay magistrate (an alderman) sitting both there and at the Mansion House effectively as a stipendiary.
I don’t remember that any of my clients suffered at the hands of what was an esoteric judicial system. But what I do remember is that in the courtroom there was a fire in winter kept stoked by uniformed ushers. And then, Proust-like, I thought of other courts which had fires (at least in the advocates’ room) and up came Lambeth.
And then, biting the Madeleine, I thought of courts from which my clients had tried to escape. Lambeth was one of them and my recollection is that the client got no further than the roof. What was worse was that when he was retrieved he wanted me to make an application for bail.
Then there was Hampstead. No fireplace, but instead a prison officer who, finding the gate locked told my clients, handcuffed together, to wait until he roused someone. They had almost reached the tube station when they came to a Belisha beacon. One wanted to go left but the other said ‘Right, Harry’ and a number of perspiring officers caught them. No bail application that day.
I believe nowadays you are meant to peach on your client if you think he’s about to skip. I don’t think I fell foul of this rule before it existed but I had a builder being done for a lump fraud. The night before his appearance at the Bailey he had one last conference when he asked what we thought he was going to get. ‘Four, if we are lucky’ was the consensus.
He took this calmly enough and we arranged to meet at court at 1.30 for the hearing. I was just leaving the office when there was a call. It was Mr Smith. ‘Where are you?’ I asked. ‘I’m not telling you,’ was the reply.
It was then I heard the sound of a foghorn and a Tannoy announcement. ‘All ashore…’
James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor