Andrew Sperling qualified as a Solicitor 20 years ago today. To celebrate (or commiserate) he will be writing a series of nostalgic and slightly self-indulgent blogs. Today’s blog recalls his first day in the Magistrates’ Court on 1st August 1996.
I was admitted as a Solicitor on 1st August 1996. When I first heard the term ‘being admitted’ I expected some kind of ceremony, a symbolic entrance into a room or a guard of honour.
I had lost those expectations by the time 31st July 1996 came around. By then, I knew that being admitted meant that I would be let loose at the Magistrates’ Court. I worked for a very busy High Street practice in East London which was completely inundated with crime work. It was an unwritten rule that your first day as a qualified Solicitor would be spent in the Magistrates’ Court representing one of the many hundreds of the firm’s clients.
I spent most of the summer with a faint sense of dread. I had been to a few magistrates’ court hearings with more experienced colleagues. They all seemed so sure of themselves, chatting away with the court ushers, speaking authoritatively with their clients about what they could expect and addressing the magistrates with a confident swagger. I was assured by the partners at my firm that I would be fine. They would ease me in gently with a plea in mitigation.
Plea in Mitigation
A plea in mitigation is lawyer-speak for a piece of oratory from the defendant’s representative (or the defendant themselves) following a guilty plea or finding of guilt following a trial. The purpose of it is to persuade the judge or magistrates to impose the most lenient possible sentence. The best advocates can make this sound effortless and compelling. The less able resort to toe-curling cliché and hopeless optimism. Determined to join the ranks of the former, I spent most of the night of 31st July 1996 writing pages of notes. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.
I had been given a case involving a man in his thirties facing his second conviction for burglary. I read his case papers and became increasingly convinced that this man was at serious risk of a prison sentence. It was not his first offence. He was not a fresh-faced youngster. He had not been led astray. I jotted down a list of mitigating factors and aggravating factors and tried desperately to shift as many into the left hand column as I could. Was it helpful that his wife was heavily pregnant? Was it good or bad that he had drunk six cans of Tennants Super?
I was slightly heartened by the fact that his Probation Officer had proposed a Community Service Order in the Pre-Sentence Report but it had been drummed into me that I should never take PSR recommendations for granted. I also thought the report was a little threadbare and unconvincing.
The Spice Girls kept me company (not literally) as I worked on my speech. Their single “Wannabe” had just gone to number 1 in the charts that week and the song seemed to be on a loop on Radio 1. I toyed briefly with opening my plea in mitigation with “I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want” but decided against it.
I set off at 8am the next morning carrying a gleaming briefcase containing a three-page speech and heavily annotated case papers. I made my way to Redbridge Magistrates Court in Barkingside. Why had they given me my local court? Wasn’t it enough that I had the weight of the burden of this man’s liberty on my shoulders without having to worry about bumping into someone I had seen in The Valentine pub on Saturday night?
I gave my name to the court usher and waited for my client to arrive. One of my colleagues had suggested that I should try to get my case called on early. This would ensure that the District Judge, a notoriously bad-tempered and easily bored man, would not have had to endure the painful repetition of moments of madness, salutary lessons and other phrases flogged to death by the procession of advocates trying to save their clients from a custodial sentence.
The Sentence Hearing
10am came and went without any sign of my client. The dreaded warrant not backed for bail loomed. At 1045am I spotted him, ambling around the waiting room, looking a little dishevelled and carrying a small clear plastic bag containing a few items including a toothbrush. He explained to me that one of his mates had told him that he should bring a few things “just in case”. We went over what I planned to say for him and he nodded appreciatively. He was engaging and appeared to be very grateful for the time I had spent preparing his case.
At 1235 I heard the court usher yelling the client’s name followed by “Mr Stirling”. “It’s Sperling – with a P” I explained as she ushered us into the court room. I took my place at the front facing the District Judge who seemed to me to be scowling. He glanced down at something and started to write. I shuffled my papers and tried to get “I’ll tell you what I want” out of my head.
I stood up.
“Err. (Your honour? Your majesty?)
“If it assists – I am minded to follow the recommendation in the Pre-Sentence Report .”
“Thank you Sir.”
I sat down.
Andrew Sperling – Specialist Prison Law Solicitor
Written by Andrew Sperling. Andrew is a Solicitor-Advocate, who was admitted as a Solicitor in 1996 and granted Higher Courts Civil Advocacy rights in 2010. He specialises in public law, Parole Board advocacy and human rights.