Tag Archives: court

court in the act (part 3)

By George Cheyne: Glasgow, March 2021

Innocent until proven guilty – the revered cornerstone of our legal system. And it’s closely followed by every accused having the right to a fair defence.

Unless, of course, you get landed with a legal aid lawyer who doesn’t seem to understand what you’re saying.

Let me explain. I used to cover the courts in my days as a cub reporter for the Clydebank Press in the 1970s and sat in on some bizarre cases.

One that sticks out involved a district court trial of a guy accused of assault and his shoot-yourself-in-the-foot lawyer.

The prosecution case, backed up by two independent witnesses, was that Mr X had swung a couple of punches at Mr Y after an argument outside a boozer.

The defence lawyer, who had barely landed a blow of his own in the first part of the trial, put Mr X on the stand for his version of events.

Clearly, this was a brief who hadn’t done much briefing. After asking his client a few predictable questions about the night, he said: “What about the polemics with Mr Y?”

The accused seemed unsure how to answer and there was a slight satellite delay before he replied: “I lamped him.”

“I see,” said the lawyer, “And would it be fair to say this altercation was the root of the problem?”

Another delay before Mr X says: “No’ really, it was a dull yin.”

It was clear neither of them knew what the other was saying, but the lawyer pressed on regardless.

He asked: “So there was an element of wanton provocation involved?”

Mr X replied: “Aye, wan punch!”

The lawyer, who seemed to model himself on mealy-mouthed TV character Rumpole of the Bailey, looked across at the smirking procurator fiscal and knew something had gone wrong. He just didn’t know what.

There was no realisation, no light-bulb moment that he’d stuck his client in it by letting him say what he did. He had a glance towards the Justice of the Peace for a steer.

All he got back was: “Is that the case for the defence?”

“Yes, your Honour. The defence rests,” the lawyer said in his best Rumpole manner.

The JP, doing well to keep a grin off his face after witnessing such a legal own goal, then turned to the fiscal to ask: “Any cross-examination?”

“I think that’s already been done for me,” he replied.

“Indeed,” replied the JP, “There’s no need to retire to consider the verdict…I find the accused guilty.”

No great surprise there, but I was completely taken aback another time when I found myself dragged into the court proceedings.

As a reporter, you’re told not to put yourself in the middle of the story – but sometimes that option is taken out your hands.

And that’s what happened when a shopkeeper was on trial for serving alcohol to someone under-age.

The prosecution evidence revealed that two plain-clothes police officers watched from outside the shop as the boy – who turned out to be 16 – went in and bought a half bottle of vodka and four cans of Carlsberg Special Brew.

He was stopped coming out and, after establishing his age, the police officers charged the shopkeeper.

It seemed a bit harsh, but the fiscal said the stake-out operation had been authorised because there had been a bit of previous involving kids as young as 14 buying booze.

The prosecution case tied everything up in a big bow before handing over to the defence lawyer.

It wasn’t an easy gig. All the evidence suggested the crime had been committed, so the only option left was a legal smokescreen.

Lawyer: “Did you know the boy was under 18?”

Shopkeeper: “Of course not. I’d asked his age and he said he was 19.”

Lawyer: “And you believed him?”

Shopkeeper: “Yeah, I would have been suspicious if he’d said 18 – but he told me he was 19.”

Lawyer: “So at that stage, because he identified himself as someone over 18, there was absolutely no reason to think you were the one breaking the law?”

At this point the fiscal clears his threat and rolls his eyes to get the Justice of the Peace’s attention.

The JP – let’s call him John – knows a theatrical prompt when he sees one and springs into action.

He explains that’s not a legitimate defence in a case like this as the smokescreen blows away in front of the lawyer’s eyes.

JP John then asks the shopkeeper if he has difficulty judging people’s ages.

“Err..no,” he replies with little conviction.

John scans the courtroom and my sixth sense tells me something’s about to go down – and it’s going to involve me.

True enough. John rests his eyes on me, aims a flat palm in my direction and asks the shopkeeper: “For instance, what age would you say this gentleman is?”

All eyes are on me as he replies: “About 21.”

John, who seems to be enjoying this little parlour game a bit much, then asks me: “And can the gentleman of the press reveal his age to the court?”

“I’m 17, your Honour.”

“Thought so, this doesn’t reflect well on you,” he tells the shopkeeper before finding him guilty and fining him.

The story doesn’t end there, though. I left court, went back to the office to find everyone had gone  to the pub next door so I decided to join them.

I got myself a pint of Tennent’s, took a huge sip, turned round to see the others…and bumped slap-bang into John.

That’s John the JP, upholder of law and order in these parts, and the man I’ve just told in a court of law that I’m only 17.

I’m standing there with a pint in my hand and froth all over my top lip. But before I get the chance to say it’s a fair cop guv, John asks: “Can I get you another? I owe you one for getting you to help out there.”

Ironic or what?

court in the act (part 2)

George Cheyne: Glasgow, March 2021

She was going to have her day in court, there was no question about that.

Dressed up to the nines, her hair piled high and her heels even higher, Linda McCaffrey click-clacked her way across the wooden floor to the witness box at Clydebank District Court.

She looked a nailed-on cert to win any Bet Lynch-lookalike contest – right down to the leopard-print jacket that the Coronation Street star used to wear.

Mrs McCaffrey, looking slightly miffed her big moment was taking place in front of an audience of less than ten, promised to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

She was in court – which sat in Clydebank Town Hall – to give her account of the night her husband was arrested for some street rammy or other.

And what an account…she delivered her lines to perfection during a gentle interrogation by her husband’s solicitor. But guess what? Her version didn’t tally with what the police officers had said previously.

Step forward the procurator fiscal – no stranger to a bit of showboating himself – and he went after her like a man possessed.

But Mrs McCaffrey refused to buckle under the pressure and stuck resolutely to her story.

Time for a bit of gamesmanship.
“So, Mrs McCaffrey, it’s your evidence that your husband was merely making his way home and had absolutely nothing to do with the disturbance?”

“Aye, that’s how I remember it, love.”

“And you don’t recall seeing your husband having an altercation with the police officers?”

“Aye, that’s right, love.”

“Mrs McCaffrey…I’m not in love with you, I never have been in love with you and I have no intention of ever being in love with you, so don’t call me love. Is that clear?”

“Yes, love.”

“Your honour, I must ask you to warn this witness about her conduct here today.”

At this point the Justice of the Peace looked up sternly from the bench to say: “Mrs McCaffrey, you have to be mindful that this is a court of law and behave accordingly.”

“Right you are, doll…”

This was the kind of exchange that brightened up the dull tedium of covering district court cases in the late 1970s for The Clydebank Press.

I had a ringside seat to see justice dispensed at the fag end of Scotland’s legal system – a window into the small-potato court cases which are the lifeblood of any local newspaper.

And if you had characters like Mrs McCaffrey in court, then it made sifting through the minutiae that little bit more enjoyable.

If not, you played courtroom bingo. This involved certain words or phrases to be mentally ticked off during a police officer’s evidence.

You were looking for all the usual contenders – “locus”, “proceeded”, “disorderly manner”, “fear and alarm”, “refused to desist” and “arrested”.

Sometimes you could get a full house without the officer pausing for breath.

That was the thing about police evidence, the officers always seemed so well prepped and gave their version of events using exactly the same phrases.
Funny that, eh?

However, I was there once when two policemen went completely off script.
Or, more accurately, one of them did.

PC 1 regaled us with a tale of how he and PC 2 were on patrol when they saw the accused acting in a disorderly manner (tick) and then hurl a bottle towards two youths and challenge them to fight. He identified the accused in the dock by pointing at him.

Bang to rights, I’d say. The defending solicitor poked around a bit, trying to spot any weakness, before asking PC 1 if he remembers what arm the accused used to chuck the bottle.

The officer doesn’t miss a beat before saying: “His right.”

The solicitor was obviously hoping to plant a seed of doubt in the prosecution case if somehow PC 2 answered differently.
In the end, he got far more than he could have hoped for.

Up stepped PC 2, who also identified the accused, to tell us how he was on patrol with PC 1 when he saw the accused at the locus (tick) arguing with a woman, pushing her onto the road before punching her on the face.

The fiscal tried to pass it off as a mix-up and asked PC 2 if he’d like to refer to his notebook – code for you’ve made a boo-boo – but the defence lawyer was all over it and immediately asked the Justice of the Peace to acquit his client on the grounds that PC 2’s evidence clearly couldn’t be trusted.

The sitting JP agreed. He threw the case out, told the accused he was free to go and gave PC 2 a withering look before saying, rather caustically: “Maybe you’ll learn your lines a bit better next time.”

I suppose that’s what the court was – a stage for performers like police officers, fiscals, JPs, witnesses and the accused to strut their stuff as they delivered their lines.

And, believe me, there was a lot of over-acting going on.

I remember one fiscal used to ham it up big time when he was questioning police officers, making sure the JPs knew their evidence was sacrosanct.

To labour the point, he would invariably ask the officer if they were on duty that day, knowing full well they weren’t. And he’d follow up the inevitable reply with: “Ah, the court thanks you for coming here on your day off.”

The implication being that the officer was clearly the most credible of witnesses, if he was willing to give up his own precious free time just to be there.

This little act was repeated time after time and, as an unwritten rule, remained unchallenged by the defence lawyers – until one of them finally cracked.

Standing before an officer who had just been thanked for coming there that day, he told him: “So it’s your day off..well, in that case, you’ll be getting paid overtime. Maybe you should be thanking us.”

Lawyer exits stage left with a satisfied grin on his face.

court in the act (part 1)

By George Cheyne: Glasgow March 2021

It was the same ritual every Monday morning in that summer of 1976, ever since the “train incident” traumatised my mum.

She’d look me up and down as I was leaving for work, her eyes pleading with me once more… but this time with feeling.

“Make sure you’ve got your spare jacket and cap with you,” she’d say. Every-Bloody-Monday.

Admittedly, this piece of sage advice as I was heading out the door was hardly up there with: “Make sure you’ve got clean underwear on – you might get run over by a bus.”

But it meant everything to mum. She needed to know I’d packed the extra clothes as I headed off to Dumbarton Sheriff Court on Mondays to do my job as a 17-year-old cub reporter for a local newspaper.

This was the halcyon days of All The Presidents Men, the true-life movie about how reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein helped bring down the Nixon administration following the Watergate scandal.

However, mum’s inspiration for making sure I had a spare jacket and cap tucked away, lent itself more to 1960s Cold War spy dramas than a film about a 1970s newspaper exposé.

She had been jumpy ever since I was threatened by two thugs on the train back from Dumbarton after covering a court two months before – and insisted I take this cunning disguise along to avoid any repeat.

Monday mornings at the sheriff court was a regular gig for me because there were plenty of good news stories to be picked up for The Clydebank Press back then.

Anyone who had been banged up over the weekend in Clydebank would be taken to Dumbarton Sheriff Court for a plea hearing. Plead guilty and you were dealt with there and then, plead not guilty and a trial date was set.

I would go down there, ferret around in the clerk’s office to see what relevant cases were coming up and then take my front-row seat to watch the wheels of justice turn.

This particular day my two fellow train travellers had been in court to see their brother sent down for six months after a vicious street assault and had obviously been for a few cocktails to mull things over.

So far, so normal. But then fate put the three of us in the same carriage for the train journey back to Clydebank.

I recognised them straight away but thought no more about it as I began scribbling away in my notebook.

In hindsight, this wasn’t the smartest move I’ve ever made.

Two stops later the brothers sidled over to my seat and, with obvious intent, one slipped in beside me and the other across from me. Neat pincer movement, huh?

The one opposite said: “I know you…you were in court this morning. What paper do you work for?”

By now – too late, of course – I realised the folly of using my notebook on the train, so I plumped for my best completely-baffled look as I tried to convince them they had the wrong guy.

“Don’t gie’s it – I recognise yir jaiket,” said my interrogator, “Who do you work for?”

The jacket reference threw me. Why did he pick up on that..did it stand out that much..what was wrong with it..did I still have the receipt? So many questions, so little time.

I’d run out of wriggle room. In my head, I was going to say: “Bob Woodward, Washington Post…how can I help you?” But out my mouth came: “Clydebank Press.”

The glance between the two brothers told me I’d made a big mistake giving out this information so freely. What was I thinking?

Anyway, it became pretty obvious what the two of them were thinking. “We don’t want that story about our brother going in the paper,” said my opposite number as he casually flicked a Bic lighter on and off.

I considered putting across a measured argument about freedom of the press, how we were the eyes and ears of the public and how justice had to be seen to be done – but that self-righteous stance only lasted about a nano-second.

Understandably, thoughts of self-preservation kicked in instead and I mumbled something about how that decision wasn’t up to me.

“Aye, but if you don’t write anything then it cannae  go in,” came the reply.

Trust me to get accosted by two guys who seem to have thought the whole thing through to a logical conclusion. Woodward and Bernstein never had to put up with this shit.

The stand-off – and I use the term loosely because in reality it was two twenty-something hard men going up against a teenager who had no aces up the sleeve of his distinctive-looking jacket – ended when the train pulled in to Dalmuir Station.

They were getting off and I was staying on. There was still time for the obligatory last word from the so-far silent brother: “No story, right! Remember…we know where you work.”

The point was rammed home as he jabbed my arm for every one of the last five syllables. 

Message understood. I got off at the next stop, trudged into the office and unloaded the whole dilemma to my boss.

Only he didn’t see it as a dilemma. This was the 70s, the publish-and-be-damned era, so he said: “We can’t give in to these people, George. Write it up big.” Then an afterthought: “Mmm, I can see how the jacket gave you away.”

That jacket again. Clark Kent never had to put up with this shit.

The story went in the paper that Friday and I spent a lot of time looking over my shoulder whenever I left the office – but thankfully nothing ever came of the threats.

Two things happened after that.
I passed my driving test a few months later so that meant I could hightail it out of Dodge every Monday in safety…and I never wore that bloody jacket again!