John Robertson: Lawyers’ strike brings variety to drab Monday at Edinburgh Sheriff Court

Edinburgh Sheriff Court. Picture: TSPL
Edinburgh Sheriff Court. Picture: TSPL
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A DREICH Monday morning turned even dreicher for people languishing in the cells of Edinburgh Sheriff Court.

Picked up by the police over the weekend for the myriad of crimes traditionally associated with weekends in Scotland, and “banged up” to appear from custody, they would normally at least have a solicitor of choice to speak for them.

A familiar face possibly, almost one of the family, to explain why the offence had been committed and argue for the least possible sentence, or to fight for freedom on bail until a trial would establish the injustice of the charge.

However, protest action by the city’s defence solicitors in their on-going feud with the Government over legal aid meant the prisoners had little choice - go with the “duty agent”, a private solicitor obliged to offer his services in spite of the protest, or a public defender, or go it alone.

With around 50 people in the cells, the number was at least typical for the start of a new week. Normally, a duty lawyer might expect to have to appear for around ten, and the Public Defence Solicitors’ Office would have its quota, leaving the bulk for the city’s criminal defence firms to represent in Court Three.

An early start is never expected in the custody court. The sign on the glass outer door, stuck up long before any boycott was imagined, gives a clear warning: “Prisoners arrested overnight will not normally appear in court before 12 noon.”

The lad in the grey hoodie appeared to defy convention. The clock hadn’t even reached 10:30am when he was the first to be called from downstairs in the cells and trudge up to take his place in the dock. But he was “lucky” because he was not one of the new custodies. He had been detained for a week, for breaching a curfew order while awaiting sentence for...breaching the curfew order. That meant he was outwith the protest and could have his own solicitor, and the case could be heard without delay.

He was the type the protesting solicitors would identify as needing their help against the might of the state. Seventeen years old and already a father who has been told by the child’s mother that she’s not going to let him have anything to do with the baby. Add into the mix his first taste of custody over the last week, and two trials still to come, and it’s easy to imagine a lamb to the slaughter if he had to go up before the court on his own.

His lawyer managed to convince the sheriff that he had learned his lesson and that one final chance should be given. The lad and his family in the public benches appeared mightily relieved to learn he would be let out, with a two-year community payback order, 140 hours of unpaid work, and a tagging device fitted for six months. “You have to grow up and get a job,” were Sheriff Derrick McIntyre’s words of advice and warning.

By the time the first of the new custodies was ready to appear, the 12 noon sign had proved totally accurate.

“I’m representing myself,” the youth announced. Then he betrayed a chat downstairs with his lawyer by reciting parrot-fashion, if not exactly word perfect: “I would like to continue trial for two weeks without plea so me and my lawyer can deal with this together.”

The sheriff wasn’t for arguing. Case continued for two weeks.

They weren’t all so simple, however. Another man disputed whether he had been on a curfew at all, far less breach it. The prosecution insisted there was a curfew, and it would oppose bail pending a trial to settle the argument. “My lawyer’s checked it out,” the man pleaded.

In the confusion, the sheriff raised a white flag.

“I’m not happy dealing with this while he’s not being represented,” he said.

The case was continued for 24 hours, and the man was remanded in custody to hope that his available-again lawyer would fare better in winning him bail.

One of the solicitors taking part in the protest was happy to tell anyone who would listen that it was not an empty gesture, and that clients were “extremely supportive” and had been “incredible” in their reaction. Also, the action was costing money which firms could ill-afford.

Not everybody was convinced. One person, on seeing a group of lawyers lining up for a photograph outside the court building, commented to journalists: “What’s your caption? I could give you one. ‘Bloodsuckers want more.’ “