David Brookens: Deferred sentence

Retired solicitor advocate David Brookens recalls seeing someone take the law into their own hands in his early days in court.

Yesterday’s edition of The Times carried a story that really struck a chord with me: a story about a judge in Florida being attacked by a dissatisfied accused. My very first court appearance as a newly-qualified solicitor has at last been echoed in the international press.

It was the summer of 1982 and, having completed the first 12 months of my traineeship, the Law Society of Scotland had deemed it appropriate that I be granted a limited practising certificate so that I may, for the benefit of the public, put into practice the lessons I had learned watching the great advocates of the day in the High Court and the sheriff courts throughout the land. My employers at the time had a truly national criminal defence practice. Anyway, for my first starring role, I was despatched to Kilmarnock Sheriff Court to fearlessly defend a client who had, a year previously, pled guilty to a charge of breach of the peace.

For this wise exercise of discretion, he had been rewarded with a deferral of sentence (strictly speaking an adjournment) for good behaviour. As far as was known, he had indeed been of good behaviour, so all that was needed was for the fearless defence advocate, i.e. me, to advise the presiding sheriff of that fact and let matters take their normal course. An admonition was confidently expected. I say “confidently”, but that distorts the reality of the situation.

I took the case file home, read it, reread it, reread it again and so on until I could learn no more. It was not a thick file in any case, but by the time I arrived at Kilmarnock the next morning, tummy butterflies a’flutter, I could probably have narrated its entire content backwards. Now I should explain, at this point, my tummy butterflies.

This was not my first visit to Kilmarnock Sheriff Court. A few months previously I had accompanied learned counsel as he valiantly defended (successfully, but it took an appeal court appearance) a client charged with serious assault involving a knife. It was on that occasion I had the pleasure of encountering Sheriff David B. Smith, dark of countenance, black of beard, and furious of temper. I later learned he had a kinder side to his nature but of that I was totally ignorant in the summer of ’82. Mightily relieved I was that morning to learn that the sheriff destined to hear my pearls of legal wisdom was a ‘temporary’ – Sir Stephen Young, Bt, Advocate.

The court commenced. The first few cases called and were disposed of without incident. The sheriff seemed a pleasant fellow and the sentences he passed could not be said to be severe. Indeed, until the case that called immediately before mine, no sentences of imprisonment had been imposed at all. Then came the case before mine.

The accused was appearing from custody; the first that morning. He entered the dock, a large burly fellow with a scowl and demeanour that perfectly matched the criminal record with which he was credited. I waited with interest to hear what pearls of wisdom my vastly more experienced colleague would now drop on his client’s behalf. It seemed to my inexperienced self that anything less than the maximum available could be considered a triumph.

My colleague started his plea. He had the benefit of a sympathetic (they always were) social work report, which may have persuaded the accused that he was on a winner. Anything other than a custodial sentence was recommended (it always was). Anyway, come the high point of the plea in mitigation, it all went pear shaped – “Custody hasn’t worked my lord. Perhaps it’s time to try another deferral with social work input. A period of probation or perhaps this new-fangled community service thingy.” – or words to that effect. It didn’t work. The defence lawyer having regained his seat, the sheriff turned to the accused. “Mr Accused, despite your lawyer’s eloquence I can see no alternative to a period of …” He didn’t get to finish.

I was sitting no more than two feet from the accused who was immediately behind me. I heard an exclamation that contained at least “ya f*****g b*****d”, along with other determined expletives – he had quite the vocabulary. At the same time a sweatshirt-clad torso flew past my right shoulder, knocking me off my chair.

Its two arms were extended in a throttling gesture aimed directly at the sheriff who, showing remarkable agility for a man in his position, was now on his feet and pressed firmly against the rear wall of the courtroom, wig askew, eyes ablaze and his own arms stretched out in front of him. His shrieval chair had been kicked aside as he did his best to avoid the attentions of the maniac now lunging at him.

As for said maniac, I recovered enough composure to get back to my seat in time to notice he had a slightly built female police officer hanging on grimly to each of his legs. They were trying their best to stop him but to little effect, being dragged along behind as the maniac was still making forward, if slowed, progress over the knee-high front panel.

This was much to the consternation of the sheriff clerk, who could see he now blocked the maniac’s access to the sheriff. Writing this now, I remember that High Court judges have Macers to escort them to and from the bench. That is what the sheriff clerk should have had that morning – a mace with which to hit the maniac on the head. But I digress.

Finally, the maniac’s forward progress was arrested by several police officers, the burly variant, who rushed in from the public area. He was restrained and placed back in the dock where he again became the accused, escorted and restrained on either side by one of Strathclyde Police’s finest and burliest. The sheriff regained his seat and proceeded to pass a sentence of considerably less than the maximum available. Result, I thought, especially standing the accused’s behaviour. He was taken away, still protesting the injustice of it all as the door to the custody suite closed behind him.

The sheriff took a break at that point as the court adjourned for five minutes. On the sheriff’s return, my case called. What happened with it? I honestly cannot remember much of it. I must have been brilliant because my client was admonished and he thanked me gratefully on his way out of the building.

Over the course of the next 30 years I witnessed a few other courtroom disturbances, but I have to say, hand on heart, none of them made quite the impression of that first one. It was an interesting introduction to what became an interesting career. I can’t imagine I would have had as much fun doing something else as I had being a criminal defence lawyer.

Thanks for the memories.

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