As a criminal barrister providing a comprehensive service to my clients, it is important that I am ready to provide fashion suggestionsby Alex McBride / March 22, 2006 / Leave a comment
“Take off your coat,” I whispered. She eased it off her shoulders without protest. She looked marvellous. Her throat was hidden by a beige polo neck, over which she wore a V-neck sweater with horizontal coloured stripes. Her beige pleated skirt reached unrevealingly to her ankles. In a stroke of genius, her hair was set fast in a demi-glace of L’Oréal, in the style of a Romford lady shopper. This woman was the picture of an African matron: respectable, sombre—and law-abiding. Accused of attempting to open a bank account with a dodgy driving licence, when she left the dock to take the stand, the effect on the magistrates was all too apparent. For me, her lawyer, her dress sense was a delight; she hadn’t even given evidence yet and she was already playing a blinder.
The prosecution’s case was that she had entered a bank with another woman and handed the dodgy licence, which had my African matron’s name, address and photo on it, to a teller as proof of identity. Her defence was that it wasn’t she who had come into the bank; she’d been a victim of identity theft.
The teller, a young white woman, was the prosecution’s main witness. She described the woman with the licence as between 25 and 30 and wearing a see-through green top which revealed a black bra. She described her as “brassy” and claimed she “showed a bit of leg.” This enabled me to make the most of the fact that my client wasn’t 25 to 30 years old but 47. It helped to neutralise the teller’s insistence that the woman who handed over the driver’s licence was the woman whose picture appeared on it.
Appearance counts. It is the little things that can influence which way a tribunal will cleave when it decides on someone’s guilt, or considers what sentence to pass. As a criminal barrister providing a comprehensive service, it is important for me to be ready with a fashion suggestion. Your standard Saturday night glass-in-the-face fight client will almost always insist on a suit. But it is not the sort of suit the judge will be wearing. It will be sharp and accompanied by a gold Windsor-knotted tie. To the jury he’ll look like a footballer, which is probably just the sort of image he wants to convey. But many jurors will assume that footballer lookalikes are drunken louts who are by definition guilty. I suggested to the tearful girlfriend of a recent client of this sort that she take her man to Marks & Spencer to get a nice jumper. We want him walking from the dock to the box looking like the sort of douche-bag who is dressed by his mother, I explained.
With offences of dishonesty, expensive clothes are a no-no. Another client of mine came to my chambers wearing a blue suit from one of the trendier Savile Row tailors. He was swinging a little black bag with Prada emblazoned on it. It might as well have read “swag.” His huge watch, circled with diamonds, was even worse. Coupled with the suntan, the effect was suicidal. He looked as though he’d just flown in from the Costa del Car Ringer, which was unfortunate as the stolen item in question was a big yellow lorry. He must have noticed me goggling at his watch because before I could say a word he said, “Don’t worry, Alex. I’ll be wearing Marks & Spencer’s on the day.” It’s always a pleasure to work with a professional.
Dressing your client or getting your trial listed when a certain judge is on holiday is not a cynical manipulation of the process; the criminal justice system has in-built biases that have a real impact on outcomes. One of your tasks as a barrister is to try to mitigate the uncertainties of court. The goal is not only for your client to look respectable, but also to resemble the jury or the magistrate as closely as possible. The effectiveness of this approach is borne out by research. In the early 1970s, Roger Hood did a study on sentencing in magistrates’ courts: he found that older magistrates imposed more lenient fines on older drivers convicted of dangerous driving and more severe ones on younger drivers than the younger magistrates did. You don’t have to extrapolate far to realise that the same might apply to acquittal or conviction. The court’s location also plays an important part because its catchment area pulls in a certain type of juror and magistrate. This means a black man accused of actual bodily harm has a better chance at Woolwich crown court than he does at Kingston. A home office study in the late 1990s confirmed this.
What were the outcomes for my clients? The glasser was found guilty. He had previous convictions for violence, but amazingly the judge didn’t send him to prison. Was it the sweater that kept him out? The lorry thief pleaded guilty on the day of trial to a different charge and therefore got the maximum discount. He got 12 months. The African woman, who holds a master’s degree in education and works as a teaching assistant, said a man had offered to help her speed up her licence application. She filled in a DVLA form, attached a photo and paid £30. She never saw him again. The magistrates could not be sure beyond reasonable doubt that it was she who entered the bank, and so found her not guilty. If she’d come to court with a plunging neckline, the outcome would have been different. When you spin the wheel of justice, it is all about maximising your odds.