In the Media

Strong-arm tactics

PUBLISHED September 9, 2006

Neil McElligott inspired awe from those in the dock and from counsel. James Morton recalls the legendary magistrates who gave no quarter

Probably the most formidable magistrate in courts in which I appeared regularly was Neil ?Mick? McElligott. He, along with Iain McLean, who was no less formidable, endeavoured to keep the tenants of Hoxton, London, in some sort of order from the bench of the now long-closed Old Street court.

McElligott?s early years at the bar had been a struggle until he won a chase at a point-to-point meeting at Folkestone. He had backed himself at long odds and he told me that his man had gone to the bookmakers with a suitcase to collect his winnings. ?I never knew how many fivers one could fit in one,? he said. Later he told all members of his chambers, who included Fred Lawton, to back Lester Piggott?s mount, Never Say Die, in the 1954 Derby. Lawton would tell the story of how they all crowded round a radio to listen to the commentary while McElligott was being ill in the lavatory. ?After Piggott got home, Mick never looked back.?

The Hoxton punters were just about as much in awe of him as I was ? not that it really improved their general behaviour. In those days, the names of the magistrates appeared on the lists posted in the hallway of the court and clients would take one look at the board and leave to go in search of a medical certificate. The quality of these notes was not always high and one I read explained that the man could not attend court because ?his wife has just given birth to a pair of twins?. If they couldn?t find a medical certificate in the time available, their mothers would appear to tell dreadful stories of acute gastroenteritis that had struck their first-born just as he was leaving to be ?well in time for your worship?. Warrant, no bail.

While my clients could absent themselves, I could not, and for what seemed like months on end, I was on the rough end of McElligott?s tongue. My clients were refused bail, found guilty, sent to prison. Legal and factual points raised by me were treated with what seemed to be disregard. Eventually, I whimpered to Wilfrid Fordham, a barrister I regularly instructed, that I didn?t see much point in appearing at Old Street because McElligott obviously didn?t like me.

Curiously, the clients did not blame me for the dismissal of their pleas. They kept on coming. It was a good example of the belief that clients have a low expectancy of acquittal. If they get ?a result? so much the better, but provided their advocate puts up a good show, they do not mind going down that much.

Once I had a couple of youths who had robbed a series of sub-post offices and retribution came in the form of Mr Justice Melford Stevenson, who gave them eight years apiece. The barrister and I went to see them in the cells at the Old Bailey to mutter words such as ?appeal?. One of them was Glaswegian and asked: ?Who wis that old geezer?? ?What old geezer?? I asked. ?The one on the bench; the one that potted us.? ?That was Mr Justice Melford Stevenson.? The reaction was immediate. ?We don?t want to appeal. We can tell our mates we wis potted by Melford,? he said proudly.

A few days after, I complained to Wilfrid that I had to go back to Old Street. After about a quarter of an hour, McElligott said he would take a break. In a matter of moments, the usher came to say he would like to see me in his room. ?And I haven?t even said a word today,? I thought.

?Well,? said McElligott. ?What?s this nonsense I hear from Wilfrid that I don?t like you? Nothing to do with you. It?s your clients I don?t like. Now do you take milk and sugar?? And once he discovered I had an interest in horse-racing, from then on if it was not a heavy list, he would invite me in for tea with him. Not that it did my clients the slightest bit of good.

A court in which I rarely appeared was West London, then in a side street in Kensington, where the reputedly even more formidable magistrates, ER Guest and Seymour Collins, were in residence. I never appeared in front of Guest and only once in front of Collins.

I had been sent a legal aid certificate to appear for a man accused of indecent assault, and I learned two good lessons in the one morning. The facts were that the man was alleged to have paid a young teenager ten shillings after meeting him at a coffee stall at Shepherd?s Bush Green. Consent was not an issue, merely the boy?s age. I never believed in long examinations-in-chief. My clients were quite capable of getting themselves into enough trouble in cross-examination without my tying them down in the first place.

Eric Crowther, who later sat at West London, was prosecuting and said I could lead. The examination was swift if not good: ?You met this boy.? ?Yes, sir.? ?And he offered to have sex for ten shillings.? ?Yes sir?. ?Did you accept?? ?No, sir.?

Which is the point at which the competent advocate should have sat down. Instead, I asked the one question too many. ?Why not?? ?I didn?t have ten shillings, sir.? I don?t think Crowther even bothered to cross-examine, and to compound my troubles, I tried to curry favour with Collins: ?A most distasteful case, sir,? I began. ?Mr Morton,? he interrupted, ?you don?t come here very often do you?? ?No, sir.? ?Well, you haven?t heard anything,? was my penultimate put-down for the morning. Six months for my client was the final one.