Today I went to Court. There is nothing unusual about that as I go pretty much every day. Today was a little bit different because I found myself fighting back tears when I took instructions from a client. That’s right, a hardened criminal lawyer who has spent the last 15 years representing ‘guilty’ people almost cried when meeting a client for the first time.
- This article first appeared on The Tuesday Truth blog – run by Paul Harris, managing partner at Edward Fail, Bradshaw & Waterson. The author wished to remain anonymous
I’ll be honest. It hasn’t been the best week for me.
The days that followed the election proved to be more depressing than I could have imagined. We discovered that 37% of voters actually wanted the Conservatives in power. I struggle to comprehend how people can be so naive. I accept that everyone has a choice, but when the choice is ill informed it just feels wrong. A good example of this is the woman with whom I got drawn into a political conversation on Twitter. She wanted to ‘start taking satellite dishes out of labour supporters’ houses’ and how she would ‘like to buy more shoes and not fund people watching Jeremy Kyle and not working’. I tried to explain, using the limited characters allowed, that her perception was wrong, that there are genuinely vulnerable people out there needing help who benefit from our taxes. I didn’t succeed.
As a criminal lawyer, I have spent the last two years campaigning. It offends me when people say we only complain because we are fat cats who are worried about our money. I can personally set that straight pretty easily. Last year I was offered a job in a commercial firm doing a different area of law. The money in the long term would have been considerably more than I could ever earn doing criminal law. I turned it down. I turned it down despite the miserable and bleak future in legal aid. I turned it down because my job isn’t about money.
My job is something I do because I care. I care for the vulnerable people like the girl I met today. .
I’m going to call her ‘Lucy’. I had never met Lucy before. A colleague asked me if I would represent her as we had received a call about her being in the Youth Court for breaching her Youth Rehabilitation Order.
I arrived at the Youth Court and spoke to the Youth Offending Officer. He gave me a couple of pages setting out the breaches but said little else other than they needed full pre-sentence reports. I returned to the landing and called Lucy’s name.
Lucy was sitting with an older man. She stood up and I invited her into an interview room. She walked in, painfully thin and pale. She had crimped her hair and had clumsily applied make-up. She sat down and it was clear that she was uncomfortable. She struggled to make eye contact. Her jaw was moving frantically. She was clearly under the influence of drugs.
The first thing Lucy asked me was whether she would be remanded into custody today. I told her it was unlikely and she relaxed slightly. I introduced myself and explained that I would read through the statement from the Youth Offending Team with her. It didn’t make for good reading.
She had been sentenced for a nasty robbery, her co-accused an older man. She had a number of unpleasant previous convictions which I later discovered had all been committed with a variety of older male co-accused.
Looking at the young and vulnerable girl before me I would struggle to imagine her ever being able to instigate anything. She was struggling to cope with a conversation, never mind anything else.
The breach of this order had arisen because she simply didn’t turn up for appointments.
I asked her why and she told me it was because the appointments were given to her support workers who didn’t give her enough notice. Despite already knowing the answer, I asked her whether she was working or in education (she wasn’t). Lucy explained that she spends a lot of time going to another area about an hour away which is renowned for drugs and other illicit behaviour. I asked Lucy about her personal circumstances.
She told me she was 17, then smiled and said she was going to turn 18 next week.
I doubt she will have the 18th birthday celebrations that most are fortunate enough to enjoy. The papers revealed that Lucy was subject to a s20 Children Act Order. This means that she is accommodated by the local authority. Lucy went on to tell me that she actually lived with her boyfriend, the older man outside who at twenty years her senior has children older than Lucy. She had relaxed a little now and I asked her whether she considered her relationship to be ‘healthy’.
She looked at the floor and told me that he had never hit her. I didn’t believe her. It angered me that a vulnerable 17 year old subject to a s20 order could be in this position.
I asked Lucy about her family and she told me.
Her mum was a heroin addict and had always been a heroin addict. She had not had a good upbringing. Her mum couldn’t cope. One of her brothers had died. She had left school at 13 because people were ‘doing things’ to her and she couldn’t concentrate. She showed me her arms. They were cut to pieces. Deep scars in every direction. She looked completely lost. She told me that her youngest brother had been taken into care last October at the age of 14 – 14 years too late. She had never been given that chance.
Lucy told me she couldn’t get on with her mum because of what had happened to her growing up. She tried to stay in contact with her brother. She told me she was struggling to cope. She was struggling to get through life. I honestly wanted to cry. I wanted to be able to do something.
I asked her what she thought might help her. She told me she wanted to be ‘put into hospital’. She said that things weren’t right in her head and she thought she had mental health problems. It was clear that Lucy wanted to be in hospital because it would be the only place that she would be safe. I asked her about drugs. She told me she smoked cannabis. She omitted to mention the class A substance that she had clearly taken that morning. We chatted a little longer and I advised her about the procedure and that the case would be adjourned. I urged her to comply with the reports and to tell them everything she had told me. I promised her that I would come back and deal with her sentence.
I went into court with a heavy heart. I told one of the Youth Offending Team how Lucy had made me feel. Her response: ‘I know last year we had to apply to the Crown Court to try and keep a known sex offender away from her.’ I actually felt sick. The thought that a young girl aged 17 had already suffered years of abuse and was continuing to do so with little protection from anyone. Protection that is likely to vanish once she turns eighteen in just under a week.
The case was adjourned as predicted. I said goodbye to Lucy but spent the rest of my day thinking about her. I am deeply saddened by the fact that she has been completely let down. She has been let down by her parents, social services, by her teachers, by the staff she will have seen at the hospital to fix the scars on her arms. In fact, she has been let down by everyone who has ever come across her and turned a blind eye.
Breaking the cycle
I am worried for Lucy. I am worried because she is 18 next week which makes it less likely that she will get the help she needs. I know that she will never break the cycle. I know that she doesn’t have the strength or the ability to remove herself from the toxic relationships that she has with older, criminally sophisticated and sometimes sexually motivated males. I know that she is never likely to get a job.
I know that she is likely to have children and that history will repeat itself. I know this because I have seen it all before many times.
What really upsets me about Lucy is the people who will label her as another benefit scrounger, another statistic not worthy of their hard earned taxes. The people who begrudge the £55 a week that she gets on the basis that she should ‘get a job’.
If Lucy was in a position to ‘get a job’ and live a normal life I’m pretty sure she would. As it is life has never given Lucy the chance. It concerns me that in these times of austerity the government’s plans to save money will disproportionately affect people like Lucy. The reducing budgets of the NHS, the police, legal aid and the probation service will all hit people like Lucy hard and let’s face it Lucy has already been hit hard enough. It would appear that we live in a society where people would rather be able to ‘buy more shoes’ than help someone like Lucy.
It is a society that I am not comfortable with and will do everything I can to try and change