Interview: A Vulnerable Client

PUBLISHED September 25, 2013

"Until you get tangled up in it, you imagine that British justice has to be a good system because, when you see how much media scrutiny there is, you get the impression that, if there were big problems, the media would notice it and that would balance things out. But that hasn?t happened to me.?

Richard (not his real name) is thirty years old and has a first class degree in Philosophy. "In Philosophy,? he explained, "you study justice and so I had quite high expectations.?

Nothing in the criminal justice system met those expectations for Richard ? not, at least, until, well into his story, he met a legal aid solicitor.

Life interrupted

"I came to London in 2009,? he said. "I worked for Hounslow Council in their housing department. It was a good job; I was happy there.?

Richard was living in a privately rented flat in Hammersmith and all was well until, as is so often the case for those whose lives are about to unwind, not one, but two things went wrong at once.

"I became unemployed. It was because of the budget cuts with the new government; there wasn?t any money for certain jobs.? And six months later, fortune had an even crueller blow to strike: he was the victim of a sexual assault. "The details are quite unpleasant and I don?t want to talk about them. Someone was arrested. I was under the impression that they were going to be prosecuted.?

The prosecution never materialised. Richard felt isolated and began to be mentally unwell. "In my life, I had accessed mental health services but had never had a breakdown or anything intense. But, after the offence had been committed against me, I became a very unwell person and I started being admitted to hospital.?

Frightening incident

In the autumn of 2011, "things went from being really bleak to being chaotic and terrible. My view at the time was that the accusations that I made against this guy seemed to upset a bunch of other people who I didn?t even know. I got to a crisis point where I?d made myself ill, I stayed awake for too long, I used drugs ? amphetamines ? which wake you up but you lose your sense of judgment. I thought someone was in the building and was going to come and hurt me and so I called the police.

"The police came. I was sitting on my balcony. Anyone could see I was seriously unwell because I was crying my eyes out and I held a knife under my jumper. If there had been an impartial observer, I think they would agree with me that the police were doing nothing to calm the situation.?

The stand-off went on for about four hours, ending with the police explaining ? "in a reassuring way? ? that they would have to arrest him.

"They took me to the police station and I am pretty certain I was sedated. They gave me some water and within minutes I was very drowsy and fell asleep. The next morning, I said ?I think you?ve given me drugs? and asked to see a solicitor. Then they hinted that, if I pursued that, they would find some drugs at my flat. I felt I was being handled by bullies rather than police officers.?

From the police cell, Richard went to a psychiatric unit for a month and then spent a further month with his family on the south coast. It was only on his return to London that he was charged with the offence of affray.

To complete his misery, about three months after the incident, Richard was evicted from his flat. "I was told that the police presence there had upset the other people in the building.?


All this turbulence was going on while Richard was going through appearances in court.

When he first went to the magistrates? court, Richard met the duty solicitor, Matthew Humphreys, of Lansbury Worthington. "He told me they were serious charges and things I could go to prison for.?

At the second appearance, Richard was represented by Lansbury Worthington?s Caitriona McLaughlin. The solicitors? firm was convinced of the need for psychiatric reports. "We made representation after representation,? Caitriona explained, "but we didn?t really get anywhere until we reached the Crown Court?.

Unhappily, though, there were further adventures before Richard arrived in front of the judge. Being homeless and unwell, he missed his first Crown Court appearance. "I was wandering in the street and was apprehended by the police. Once they took my name, they saw I?d missed a court date and they arrested me. Again, they wouldn?t let me see a solicitor and they took my belongings.?

It was in HMP Wormwood Scrubs that Richard reached his lowest ebb. "I did not know what was going on, did not know what my status was.?

"Contact my solicitor?

Salvation came through Richard?s mother, who managed to get in touch. I said, "Mum, contact my solicitor, tell them I want to get out.?

When Caitriona came to the prison, for the first time, Richard stopped feeling quite so afraid. "It was very valuable to me that she had a folder, that she had all the documents we?d had in previous meetings.

That stopped my life disintegrating. Her folder tracked back to the start and held everything together; it held my identity there. And she?d met me when I?d been happy and when I?d been unwell. She had a balanced view of what I?m really like. If I?d met someone unknown at that point, it would not have helped at all.?

Caitriona was now not only dealing with the affray charge: Richard had been told that the police regarded his property as stolen goods. These were items which his parents had given him, years before, which he was carrying with him because he was homeless.

In a few days, Richard was released, Caitriona was making inquiries about his property with the police (they eventually dropped the handling accusation) and ? having succeeded at last in her application ? arranging for a psychiatric report.

"Luckily,? said Caitriona, "I work for a good firm where they let us go the extra mile. If it had not been for all the reps I made, he would have been convicted. It really shows how important it is to have people [solicitors] who won?t allow these things to happen.

"We got the best result for him in the end. Finally the Crown Court judge took responsibility and told the CPS to go away and think about it for an hour. This was only after we had the psychiatric report ? that was pivotal - and made further representations.?

Extra miles

Richard was not only saved from prison: Caitriona went on, after the case, to copy the psychiatrist?s report and suggest that Richard should use it in his bid to secure housing.

"She followed my story even after the case was dropped and took an interest in things.?

I spoke to Richard in his
room in a house owned by a charity in south London. He was well and planning 
a new career.

He still had a Lansbury Worthington keyring on his bedside table; it had their phone number on it. "For a while,? he said, "I had this fixed to my shoe. I wanted it attached to my body in some way so that, whatever the police did, I had some way of getting in touch with my solicitor.?

Richard may not have been what Mr Grayling scornfully referred to as a "connoisseur of legal services.? But he is now.