19 August 2008
I'm reading Giles Smith's book of collected columns from The Times at the moment. He's a marvellous football writer - irreverent, droll but always filling his paragraphs of biting satire with important truths. I wish I could write like him.
He makes reference in one of his pieces to a famous court case a few years ago when Sir Alex Ferguson was cleared of illegally using the hard shoulder of a motorway during a traffic jam on the grounds that he was desperate to use the lavatory; indeed, the Manchester United manager went into rather vivid detail of the state of his insides during his evidence.
It was too much information at the time, but it reminds me of the best story I ever picked up when I was hacking in the magistrates courts in my early career.
A spot of background; the agency I worked for had a contract with the local paper which meant we issued at least one journalist per day to the local magistrates court to pick up tales of affrays, assaults, the odd burglary and numerous drink-drivers.
Despite occasional pangs of conscience when people who weren't out-and-out villains were hit by the courts, I liked doing this, which probably explains why I was never cut out to be a proper journalist. I was into the routine stuff and found myself feeling distinctly safe and unambitious as a consequence. A morning in the press box at the court was an easy and yet productive one for me - I'd wander from court to court during recesses, scribble down cases and spend the rest of the time hobnobbing with the solicitors over coffee and fags, talking about football. After all this, I'd head back to the office and write up the three or four concluded cases for the paper, giving them their quota for the day.
There were seven courtrooms in the building. Courts 1 and 2 were general criminal courts; court 3 was usually set aside for a half-day or full-day trial, court 4 was likewise though sometimes had TV licensing sessions or parking fine sessions (stayed well away from those); court 5 was sometimes not in use but was always a coroner's court on a Wednesday; court 6 was a family court (not open to journalists) and court 7 a youth court.
Most of the time I'd be flitting between courts 1 and 2 because most of the stories came from there. You'd scan the wallbound court list looking for familiar names, or cases connected with high-profile incidents and choose your court accordingly. The best cases for reporting reasons had a 'G' next to the previous date of appearance, as that indicated a guilty plea had been entered and therefore the defendant was due to be sentenced today - allowing reporters to put all of the facts into the case for the first time.
Anyway, back to my favourite case. It was a speeding case (or 'exceeding the speed limit' to make it more accurate) which normally you'd ignore as there's next to no newsworthiness in somebody doing 45 miles an hour in a built-up area at 2am prior to being zapped by a thoroughly bored traffic cop. When this speeding case was called, I was about to stand up and make a hasty exit to the other court when I saw the defendant enter - and immediately I sat down again.
He was in a wheelchair. I immediately managed to make eye contact with his solicitor who, appreciating my raised brow, mouthed "this is a good one". So I got the notebook and pen out and began whirring the Teeline across the page.
He was charged with exceeding the speed limit on the local motorway by doing 129mph.
He pleaded guilty. This meant he would be dealt with here and now. I couldn't wait for this.
The prosecutor, a willowy and auburn haired woman of serious lawyerly sexiness (I won't name her, though I'm dying to), outlined the case. Within the first ten seconds of her address, I knew this was one of those occasional stories we would not only file to the local rag as per the contract, but also to the regionals and the nationals, plus all the local radio and TV stations.
This chap, in his mid to late 20s, was a lifelong wheelchair user and had acquired himself a nippy Vauxhall Astra. Unable to move below his waist, the traditional apparatus for the clutch, brake and accelerator had been specially adapted into hand held controls on his steering wheel. He was spotted on the motorway by the police and cautioned for doing 129mph.
The prosecutor asked for costs and sat down.
So far so good.
Then his solicitor rose to offer mitigation. I was ready for a good yarn from him, and he didn't disappoint.
On the day in question, the defendant was driving home from a wheelchair basketball game when suddenly he felt this colossal, deep pain in his abdomen. Initially he tried to pass it off as indigestion or a spot of wind, but the pain got more and more intense. Looking down, he realised immediately with horror what had happened.
His colostomy bag, which he used as he had no muscular control of his abdominal area, had twisted and was therefore unable to be filled. This meant his own bodily waste was being forced back into his system. This, frankly, would soon poison him and his life was at risk.
Unable to stop as he couldn't get out of the driver's side of his car on a hard shoulder, he pressed his accelerator hard down on his steering wheel (I was obviously unable to use the expression "put his foot down" in the final copy), and began heading for a hospital further up the motorway, just off a forthcoming junction. He'd reached 129mph and was in acute pain when the police stopped him.
Because of the nature of his mitigation, the defendant himself was asked to confirm his solicitor's words on oath, which he did. The prosecutor, displaying characteristic lack of sympathy which the CPS always put into such extreme cases, asked a few questions before the magistrates retired to decide what to do.
On a motorway, 70mph is the limit, as you know. Generally the police will stop you if you're doing 80mph or more, but when you're clocked doing 100mph or more it's an automatic ban from the court, irrespective of your licence's previous cleanliness, unless the mitigation can indicate 'special reasons' why a disqualification should not be dished out. Indeed, 129mph would in almost all cases warrant a much more serious charge of dangerous driving, rather than merely exceeding the speed limit.
The magistrates had to decide whether this chap's predicament was serious enough to impose no disqualification - indeed, they could even go so far as to not endorse his licence at all. They also had to ponder how much, if any, financial penalty to hand out.
For me, the story was as much in the sentence handed out as it was in the awesome circumstances of the case. What I needed, ideally, was for him to wheel away convicted but without any sort of punishment at all or, conversely, wheel away with the book thrown at him in the way any able-bodied driver doing 129mph without the hindrance of a kinked colostomy bag would have had. Any sort of half-punishment in between would have been disappointing from a newsy viewpoint.
We got the former. This chap was not banned, not endorsed and instead of a fine, he got - wait for it - an absolute discharge. Sniggers all round, even though the magistrates didn't seem to notice the gag. He didn't even have to pay the £25 costs the willowy prosecutor had requested.
Result! For him, and for me. I chatted to him outside the court and got his post-case reaction. The next day, it appeared in every national newspaper, including numerous inside page leads plus the front page side column of the Daily Telegraph.
There was another day when a story of mine from the courtroom which didn't involve an actual case got on to Have I Got News For You, but I'll save that for another time.