Before we moved overseas, I worked as a criminal solicitor, defending people who stood accused, often of small things, occasionally big. The question I was most frequently asked by family and friends was: ‘How do you defend someone if you believe they’re guilty?’
Generally-speaking, I wasn’t often troubled by that issue. I believe everyone deserves a defence. Our legal system is flawed but not as flawed as systems where there is little or no access to legal representation. And there are many cases where, despite our deepest suspicions, we may never know the truth of what really happened.
That said, there are cases where I wished I hadn’t been involved in someone’s defence. I dealt with an allegation of rape where I had my private doubts about the client’s protestations of innocence. At trial, the person was found not guilty.
For months, I wondered about the truth of those circumstances. I think I got my answer a few years later when I read in the news that that same man had been convicted of another rape. Thankfully, I personally don’t have any other stories quite like that one.
Perhaps the greatest worry now isn’t the right to a defence, it’s the lack of funding available for people who can’t afford a defence. Like most public services, the system is strained to breaking-point due to lack of resources.
My faith frequently crept into the mix when I was working in law. I’d often sit in a cell or police interview room thinking ‘God only knows what really went on here.’ That realisation sometimes led me to pray.
I would pray about my clients, about their personal struggles and that justice would, ultimately, be served. Perhaps more often, I would pray for myself: not to give the wrong advice or do the wrong thing.
I found law stressful. If I’m honest, I never counted myself as being very good at it. I eventually bowed out when motherhood and military wifedom made my involvement in law so minimal that I wondered whether my clients would fare better without me.
But whilst it was my day job, I usually cared about my clients (not always- some were easier to like than others) and even felt an affinity with some of them. Due to my own troubled times, I could find myself sitting with a defendant, thinking ‘This could have been me.’ I knew that if I hadn’t had parents who loved me, a family that cared, with money and resources, I could have found myself where they were.
And that was a genuine belief, not something I’ve dreamt up for a blog. I felt it keenly about myself but I suspect it’s true for most of us. If we’d been born in care, or with parents who were addicts, maybe ensnared by the legal system themselves, if we’d been abused in some way, not fed or clothed properly, with no encouragement to care about ourselves, with no hope or self-respect, maybe our lives would resemble my former clients.
Years ago, when I was a court clerk, a young Eastern European woman of good character appeared in court on a charge of loitering. She was buxom, humorous and clearly highly educated. She didn’t fit the typical mould of a prostitute. The incongruity of her appearance affected the whole court to the extent that the judge sent her on her way with a conditional discharge and an insistence that she didn’t belong in his courtroom.
A few months later, she was back. This time she was a shaking, shrunken shell with sunken eyes, half her size, incoherent through drugs. There wasn’t a trace of humour left. I wonder now if she had been trafficked, her abusers safely out of sight. It was another reminder that anyone can end up in the dock, whatever their background or aspirations.
I remember chatting with a barrister in the public waiting area of the same courthouse. He pointed at those waiting to be summonsed into court and labelled them ‘scum,’ as though they were a different breed. He was an excellent lawyer, in a different league to me, but I couldn’t agree with him. I knew that any one of us could find ourselves in the same dock- that law school, signet rings and Saville Row suits made it less likely but not impossible.
Often, it was ‘scummy’ work- that much was true. If you’ve ever taken instructions from someone’s who’s been in custody for more than 24 hours, or inhaled the smell of heroine addiction or used an interview room that half a courthouse has passed through, a certain aroma clings to you. It’s a blend of smells- the smell of neglect, shame, disappointment, hopelessness. It’s the smell of broken humanity.
For all its stresses and anti-social hours, there was beauty in that line of work. It came in the moments when God’s grace fall across a windowless courtroom or a police station like a ray of sunlight. The clearest time it happened during my career was when I was clerking and the defendant in the dock was an angry, young black man accused, amongst other things, of torturing his dog.
The man, or boy really, sat in the dock opposite the rest of the courtroom, who were white, middle-class and totally disgusted. The physical gap between us wasn’t large but the gap in every other sense was immense.
A wave of disapproval swept around the court room as I read out the charges. And I felt as appalled as everyone else. I remember wanting others to see how appalled I was- a strange and uncomfortable thing to recall. Maybe I thought a show of disapproval made me look upstanding, covering over own my failings. Most of all, I wanted the person in the dock to sense my disapproval: I wanted him to feel ashamed of his cruelty.
I don’t remember really what happened after that, other than the defendant being led away in custody, to be returned to Pentonville that night. The allegations involving the dog were the tip of the iceberg- I don’t think he was going anywhere outside the constraints of the legal system very fast.
My memory of the details was eclipsed by what happened next. As the court broke for the morning and I returned to my office, I remembered I had a small book of Bible verses no bigger than a book of stamps in my desk drawer. I had come by it on a visit to Scotland when I was there with a friend trying to sort through some of my own troubles.
It was a book of love and encouragement- spiritual balm for the soul. I suddenly knew it was meant for the man in the dock. This idea of what had to happen next wasn’t of me- it was as though someone else’s love had set itself up inside me, pushing out my own feelings of judgement and disapproval.
It was followed by a tingling, fluttery, feeling, something akin to excitement, as I caught a sense that this was significant and pressing. This tiny, little book, a free handout, needed to be given to the man, maybe to read in his cell that night when he was returned from the shame of his court appearance.
The problem was that, at that early stage of my career, I had never been down to the cells, I wasn’t his lawyer and there were the gaolers to convince: hard-looking, occasionally awkward people doing an incredibly difficult job. I couldn’t believe they were just going to let me pass something through them to a defendant.
I prayed as I hurried to the cells stairs and buzzed to be allowed into the belly of the courthouse, with its hostile lighting, the continual banging of a disgruntled customer several doors along and it’s wall of gaolers.
I continued to pray until I found myself in front of the head gaoler with my little book and my massive request. I rambled breathlessly as I explained why I was there. The lady leafed through the book. Then she reached into her uniform. ‘Do you want a pen to write a message in it?’
My hand trembled as I wrote inside the book. ‘He ll get it tonight when we return his property to him,’ she explained. And it became obvious then that this lady cared for the people she drove around in her prison van in the early hours at each end of the day, whom she endlessly escorted up and down the cell stairs, whom she sat next to in the dock, sometimes her wrist cuffed to theirs.
I returned to my office with the belief that this man’s life might be about to change forever. Not because of my book but because the business with the book suggested that God planned to do business with the man. Serious, life-altering business with a son whose life had become ‘scummy’ and broken.
The Bible tells us that we all belong in the dock. It’s not just ‘bad’ people like dog tormentors who have let God down. We all have. But the bigger point is that God is kinder than the gaoler who sits cuffed to the accused. He’s kinder than the judge who hands down a conditional discharge and a blessing.
He’s a judge who comes out from behind his bench, crosses the gap that divides us and stands in the dock for us so we can walk free. He made himself as small as a baby to be with us, submitted himself to an unfair trial and death to spare us and he rose to save us. God’s never been troubled by that awkward question asked of so many lawyers: ‘How do you defend someone when you believe they’re guilty?’ The reason being that all of his clients are guilty and he has saved them all.
I heard a preacher explain recently that God has already saved everyone by bridging the gap between us but he is saving those who try to walk towards him. It’s a past and present event. I prayed for months that the young man with the book would respond but there’s no guarantee that he did. Love may have broken through into his cell that night but only he could choose whether he was going to allow it to change him. He may have chosen not to.
We are not absolved of responsibility in this outpouring of grace. The challenge is how we respond. The invitation is there for us all but the outcome is determined by what we choose to do with it.