Authors: Dick Francis,FELIX FRANCIS
I was soon ready to go and there was still no sign of Scot Barlow. Everyone else had gone home so I went and again looked into the showers. He was still sitting there, in the same place as before.
‘Do you need any help?’ I asked. I assumed he must have had a fall during the afternoon and that his face was sore from using it on the ground as a brake.
‘Sod off,’ he said again. ‘I don’t need your help. You’re as bad as he is.’
‘Bad as who is?’ I asked.
‘Your bloody friend,’ he said.
‘What friend?’ I asked him.
‘Steve bloody Mitchell, of course,’ he said. ‘Who else do you think did this?’ He held a hand up to his face.
‘What?’ I said, astounded. ‘Steve Mitchell did this to you? But why?’
‘You’d better ask him that,’ he said. ‘And not the first time, either.’
‘You should tell someone,’ I said, but I could see that he couldn’t. Not with his reputation.
‘Don’t be daft,’ he said. ‘Now you piss off home like a good little amateur. And keep your bloody mouth shut.’ He turned away from me and wiped a hand over his face.
I wondered what I should do. Should I tell the few officials left in the weighing room that he was there so they didn’t lock him in? Should I go and fetch one of the ambulance staff? Or should I go and find a policeman to report an assault?
In the end I did nothing, except collect my gear and go home.
‘I don’t fucking believe it,’ someone said loudly in the clerks’ room as I walked in on Monday morning.
Such language in chambers was rare, and rarer still was such language from Sir James Horley QC, the Head of Chambers, and therefore nominally my boss. Sir James was standing in front of the clerks’ desks reading from a piece of paper.
‘What don’t you… believe?’ I asked him, deciding at the last moment not to repeat his profanity.
‘This,’ he said, waving the paper towards me.
I walked over and took the paper. It was a printout of an e-mail. It was headed
CASE COLLAPSES AGAINST JULIAN TRENT
Oh fuck indeed, I thought. I didn’t believe it either.
‘You defended him the first time round,’ Sir James said. It was a statement rather than a question.
‘Yes,’ I said. I remembered it all too well. ‘Open-and-shut case. Guilty as sin. How he got a retrial on appeal I’ll never know.’
‘That damn solicitor,’ said Sir James. ‘And now he’s got off completely.’ He took back the piece of paper and reread the short passage on it. ‘Case dismissed for lack of evidence, it says here.’
More like for lack of witnesses prepared to give their evidence, I thought. They were afraid of getting beaten up.
I had taken a special interest in the appeal against Julian Trent’s conviction in spite of no longer acting for the little thug. That damn solicitor, as Sir James had called him, was one of the Crown Prosecution team who had admitted cajoling members of the original trial jury to produce a guilty verdict. Three members of the jury had been to the police to report the incident, and all three had subsequently given evidence at the appeal hearing stating that they had been approached independently by the same solicitor. Why he’d done it, I couldn’t understand, as the evidence in the case had been overwhelming. But the Appeal Court judges had had little choice but to order a retrial.
The episode had cost the solicitor his job, his reputation and, ultimately, his professional qualification to practise. There had been a minor scandal in the corridors of the Law Society. But at least the appeal judges had had the good sense to keep young Julian remanded in jail pending the new proceedings.
Now, it seemed, he would be walking free, his conviction and lengthy prison sentence being mere distant memories.
I recalled the last thing he had said to me in the cells under the Old Bailey courtroom last March. It was not a happy memory. It was customary for defence counsel to visit their client after the verdict, win or lose, but this had not been a normal visit.
‘I’ll get even with you, you spineless bastard,’ he’d shouted at me with venom as I had entered the cell.
I presumed he thought that his conviction was my fault because I had refused to threaten the witnesses with violence as he had wanted me to do.
‘You’d better watch your back,’ he’d gone on menacingly. ‘One day soon I’ll creep up on you and you’ll never see it coming.’
The hairs on the back of my neck now rose up and I instinctively turned round as if to find him right here in chambers. At the time of his conviction I had been exceedingly thankful to leave him in the custody of the prison officers and I deeply wished he still was. Over the years I had been threatened by some others of my less affable clients, but there was something about Julian Trent that frightened me badly, very badly indeed.
‘Are you all right?’ Sir James was looking at me with his head slightly inclined.
‘Fine,’ I said with a slightly croaky voice. I cleared my throat. ‘Perfectly fine, thank you, Sir James.’
‘You look like you’ve seen a ghost,’ he said.
Perhaps I had. Was it me? Would I be a ghost when Julian Trent came a-calling?
I shook my head. ‘Just remembering the original trial,’ I said.
‘The whole thing is fishy if you ask me,’ he said in his rather pompous manner.
‘And is anyone asking you?’ I said.
‘What do you mean?’ said Sir James.
‘You seem well acquainted with the case, and the result is clearly important to you.’ Sir James had never sworn before in my hearing. ‘I didn’t realize that anyone from these chambers was acting.’
‘They aren’t,’ he said.
Sir James Horley QC, as Head of Chambers, had his finger on all that was going on within these walls. He knew about
every case in which barristers from ‘his’ chambers were acting, whether on the prosecution side or the defence. He had a reputation for it. But equally, he knew nothing, nor cared little, about cases where ‘his’ team were not involved. At least, that was the impression he usually wanted to give.
‘So why the interest in this case?’ I asked.
‘Do I need a reason?’ he asked, somewhat defensively.
‘No,’ I said. ‘You don’t need a reason, but my question remains, why the interest?’
‘Don’t you cross-examine me,’ he retorted.
Sir James had a bit of a reputation amongst the junior barristers for enjoying throwing his superior status around. The position of Head of Chambers was not quite what it might appear. It was mostly an honorary title often held by the most senior member, the QC of longest standing rather than necessarily the most eminent. All of the forty-five or so barristers in these chambers were self-employed. The main purpose of us coming together in chambers was to allow us to pool those services we all needed, the clerks, the offices, the library, meeting rooms and so on. Each of us remained responsible for acquiring our own work from our own clients, although the clerks were important in the allocation of a new client to someone with the appropriate expertise. But one thing our Head of Chambers certainly did not do was to share out the work amongst his juniors. Sir James had never been known to share anything if he could keep it all to himself.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ I said as a way of finishing the discussion on the matter. He would tell me if he wanted to, or not if that was his choice. My questioning would not sway the matter one way or another. Sir James was like the most unhelpful courtroom witness who has his own agenda about what evidence he
will give and the direction of counsel’s questioning will make no difference. Perhaps it takes an obdurate man to break down another of similar character, which was why Sir James Horley was one of the greatest advocates in the land.
‘I was advising the judge in the case,’ he said. So he did want to tell me after all. He was now showing off, I thought ungraciously.
‘Oh,’ I said noncommittally. I, too, could play his little game. I turned away to collect some letters from the pigeonhole behind me marked
MR G. MASON
. It was one of an array of wooden boxes each about twelve inches square lining one wall of the clerks’ room. There were ten such spaces in each of six horizontal rows, open to the front, with each having a neatly printed label in a brass surround at the top showing the owner’s name. They were not, of course, arranged in alphabetical order, which would have made finding someone else’s box nice and easy; they were arranged in order of seniority, with Sir James’s pigeonhole at the top right nearest the door. Consequently, our clutch of QCs had their boxes at eye-level while the juniors were below, even if the ‘junior’ had been called to the Bar long before the most recent QC and was easily old enough to be his father. Those juniors most recently called and those doing pupillage had almost to prostrate themselves on the floor to see what had been deposited in the deeper recesses of their boxes. I assumed that the whole plan was aimed at ensuring that the juniors did not forget their place. No doubt, if and when I myself made it to the lofty heights of being a QC, I would think that the system was ideal. Becoming a Queen’s Counsel implied real status and was meant to be reserved for only the very best of the profession. Every barrister wanted to be a QC, but only ten per cent or so actually made it.
‘The case hung on the question of intimidation,’ Sir James said to my back, continuing our conversation.
It didn’t surprise me. Julian Trent had intimidated me. I lifted a pile of papers from my box and turned back.
‘The judge in the case and I were at law school together,’ he went on. ‘Known each other for forty years.’ He gazed up as if remembering his lost youth. ‘Anyway,’ he said, looking back down at me, ‘the problem with the new trial was that the prosecution witnesses now either refused to give evidence at all or said something completely opposite to what they had said before. It was clear that they had been intimidated.’
Intimidation in the legal system was rife and a major obstacle to criminal justice. We all had to deal with it on a day-to-day basis.
I stood patiently and waited through a silence as Sir James appeared to decide if he would continue or not. Having decided in the affirmative, he went on. ‘So the judge wanted some advice as to whether the initial statements from witnesses taken by the police at the time of the incident could be read out in court as evidence without the prosecution calling the individuals concerned.’
I knew that Sir James had been a recorder for many years and that meant he sat as a Crown Court judge for up to thirty days per year. It was the first step to becoming a full-time judge and most senior practising QCs were or had been recorders. It was not uncommon for sitting judges to seek advice from them, and vice versa.
‘And what advice did you give him?’ I asked him.
‘Her, actually,’ he said. ‘Dorothy McGee. I advised her that such evidence could be admissible provided the witness was called, even if the witness was now declared as being hostile to
the Crown’s case. However, it seemed that all the witnesses in the case had changed their tune, including the victim of the beating and his family, who now claimed that the event didn’t happen in the first place and that the injuries were due to him falling down some stairs. Do they really think we are stupid or something?’ He was getting quite cross. ‘I advised her to press on with the case. I told her that it is essential to justice that such intimidation cannot be seen to succeed and I was sure the jury would agree and convict.’
‘Trent probably intimidated the jury as well,’ I said. I wondered if he had intimidated the three jurors who had come forward at the appeal.
‘We’ll never know,’ he said. ‘This note says the case has collapsed so it probably never went to the jury. I suspect that in the face of no witnesses to the event, except those denying that it ever occurred, the CPS, or maybe it was Dorothy, they just gave up. What an absolute disgrace.’ He suddenly turned on his heel and walked away, back towards his room down the hall. My audience was over.
‘Morning, Mr Mason,’ said the Chief Clerk suddenly, making me jump. He had been sitting impassive and silent at his desk during my exchange with Sir James and I had not noticed him behind the computer monitors.
‘Morning, Arthur,’ I replied, moving to see him more clearly. He was a smallish man but only in stature, not in personality. I presumed he was now in his late fifties or early sixties as he often claimed to have worked in these chambers for more than forty years. He had already been a well-established Chief Clerk when I had first arrived twelve years before and he didn’t seem to have changed one bit in the interim, apart from the appearance of a little grey in a full head of thick black curly hair.
‘Bit late this morning, sir?’ He phrased it as a question but it was meant more as a statement.
I glanced up at the clock on the wall above his head. Half past eleven. I had to agree that it was not a particularly prompt start to the working week.
‘I’ve been busy elsewhere,’ I said to him. Busy in bed, asleep.
‘Are you misleading the court?’ he asked accusingly, but with a smile. Misleading the court was the most heinous of crimes for a barrister.
The Chief Clerk was supposed to work for the members of chambers but somehow no one had ever told Arthur that. He clearly presumed that the reverse was true. If a junior or pupil misdemeanoured in some way, either through their bad behaviour or their poor work, then it was usually the Chief Clerk rather than the Head of Chambers who dealt out the admonishment. Each member of chambers paid a proportion of their fees to provide for the services we enjoyed and to pay for the team of clerks who were our secretariat, our minders and our chaperones. It was rumoured that in some chambers, with many high-earning barristers, the Chief Clerk was earning more than any of the masters he served. Arthur may have been nominally subservient to me but, as a junior who had aspirations of becoming a silk, I would be a fool to cross him.
‘Sorry, Arthur,’ I said, trying to look as apologetic as possible. ‘Any messages for me?’
‘Only those already in your box,’ he said, nodding towards the papers in my hand. Fortunately for me his telephone rang at this point and I scampered for the safety of my desk while he answered it. Why, I mused, did I always feel like a naughty schoolboy when in Arthur’s company. Maybe it was because he instinctively knew when I was not where I should be at any
given time, usually because I was on a racecourse somewhere having more fun.