The mercurial Russell Winnock (pseudonym) is the author of the compelling and sometimes outrageous, Confessions of a Barrister.
In a fascinating story, written for The Crime Hub, Winnock tells of a clash between two very different characters in the legal profession, one at the start of his career, the other at the end…
Judge Warriner’s Last Day – Russell Winnock
His Honour Judge Paul Warriner, had sat in Court 14 of the City Crown Court for as long as anyone could remember. He reputation was one of brutal ferocity – the type of Judge who would cause a young barrister’s very soul to plunge into the depths of despair when faced with the prospect of appearing in front of them. The type of Judge who would toy with Counsel, listening to their submissions and arguments and then pouncing like a ragged old hyena on any mistake or weakness. He appeared to hold everyone in contempt – no barrister was good enough to appear in front of him and every defendant was despatched with a dark judicial flourish that barely concealed a myriad of prejudices.
In the robing room one of the favourite topics of conversation, alongside fees, the depressing reduction in the number of cases being charged, and the extortionate cost of a cup of tea in the old canteen, was HHJ Warriner’s retirement. Surely, he couldn’t go on forever, surely, he was now past the date when most Judges would be shuffled off to whatever world retired judges inhabit.
There were regular rumours, the words ‘I’ve heard that it’s going to be April,’ would be uttered by some naively optimistic junior and grasped with glee by the assembled learned throng, but, inevitably, April would come and go, and HHJ Warriner would still be in situ, dishing out pain in the same Courtroom.
Paul Morris had heard all the stories, he’d listened as the more experienced members of his Chambers had limped back to their desks, faces drained with exhaustion and exasperation as they described their business in Court 14. He had prayed that Warriner would be long gone by the time he completed pupillage and started his practice.
But Warriner kept going.
It was a Sunday evening. Paul had been on his feet in Court for about a month – a month of Magistrates Courts and County Courts, of preparing for every case as if his life depended upon it, and going through the slow and often painful experience of learning how to be a barrister.
He was yet to set foot in the Crown Court.
His phone rang – it was one his Clerks, ‘Paul? It’s Keith from Chambers.’
‘Oh, hi Keith,’ his heart started to pump a little quicker, what would his clerks want with him on a Sunday evening. What had he done wrong?
‘Don’t worry,’ said Keith, instinctively realising that his call would have caused the young lawyer immediate worry, ‘there’s been a change of plan tomorrow – Lucy Harrison isn’t very well, and we need someone to do her sentence in City Crown, can you cover?’
‘Yes,’ said Paul, trying to sound as confident and keen as he could, ‘of course.’
‘Great, I’ll send you through the papers. The case is called Mallinder.’
The papers duly arrived by email moments later, and Paul spent the night preparing and worrying, then preparing some more, then worrying a bit more – this would be his first appearance in the Crown Court, the first time he had donned his wig and his gown, the first time he had addressed a judge. What he forgot to check was which Judge was going to hear his case, if he had, he would have discovered that the next morning at 10.30am, the case of Connor Mallinder, was to be heard by HHJ Peter Warriner in Courtroom 14.
Paul was up at dawn for another bout of worry and preparation before carefully packing his brilliant white wig and pristine new gown. He made his way to Court arriving at 8.30 and sat alone in the robing room, by now, he knew, having checked the daily list, that his first case in the Crown Court was to be in front of the most feared Judge on the whole of the Circuit.
At 9.30 – he went to meet his client.
‘Hello,’ he said, trying to sound as though he was in fact a barrister with years and years of experience, rather than a greenhorn newbie who had yet to even stand up in Court let alone utter a coherent sentence.
‘I’m Paul Morris, I’m going to be looking after you today.’
One of Paul’s worst fears had been that his client would take one look at him and sack him there and then on the spot, but instead, Connor Mallinder, seemed not to care that his barrister was only 22 years old and visibly trembling – Connor Mallinder had another more pressing fear: prison.
Connor was only 18 and had never been in trouble before – he had just completed his ‘A’ levels when he and a few mates had travelled to the NightRave music festival. He’d never dabbled in drugs before, he’d always been more interested in football and gaming and trying to stay on top of his studies – but, when one of his group suggested that they draw straws to see who would take in 20 ecstasy tablets, like a fool, he’d agreed to do it, and then, when he got the short straw, he stashed the pills in his sock. It was only 20 pills – what could go wrong?
The police drug dog sniffed them out.
Connor never made the rave.
And now he was sitting outside Court 14 quietly explaining everything to the young barrister. By his side was the holdall that he’d been advised to pack. Drug dealers go to prison – is what his solicitor had told him.
Paul wrote down carefully what Connor told him – he’d made a check list of the things that amounted to mitigation: early guilty plea, good character, not many pills, a lesson learnt, prospective university student, lovely family – yes it was all there. He advised his client what would happen and what he was going to say then asked him if there was anything else he’d like to add – Connor shook his head mournfully then got up and started to make his way towards the Court. Then he stopped and turned, ‘I’m really sorry,’ he said, ‘just tell him that, I’m really sorry and I won’t do it again.’ Paul nodded, his client’s instructions were sincere, but childlike – he smiled thinly back at him, ‘I’ll do my best for you,’ he said.
Paul made his way into Court and slipped into Counsel’s row. To his left was James Negus, Counsel for the Crown, behind him, his client, Connor was already sitting ashen faced in the dock and in front of him, massive and elevated like a dark hellish angel was HHJ Peter Warriner.
Negus opened the facts for the prosecution and Paul rose to his feet to mitigate, his legs felt like flimsy pieces of plywood that would give way at any moment, his throat was dry – he wondered what his voice would sound like, he wondered if he could finish a sentence or even start one.
‘Your Honour,’ he began, ‘Connor Mallinder is a young man who has pleaded guilty to possession with intent to supply ecstasy.’
As he spoke the eyes of the Judge trained upon him, then started to scrunch up into a look of contemptuous disdain, ‘I know what he’s pleaded guilty to Mr Morris,’ he said, ‘now tell me what are the sentencing guidelines for supplying drugs in a public place?’
Paul stuttered, ‘er, well, er…’
‘Mr Morris, are you familiar with the Sentencing Council’s Guidelines on drug offences?’
Paul continued, ‘yes, Judge.’
Warriner exploded – to be referred to as ‘Judge’ by a barrister in his Court was a grave offence – ‘you will address me by my proper title.’
‘Yes, er, Your Honour. Er, the Sentencing Guidelines suggest a starting point of two years for this offence.’
‘No, they don’t,’ bellowed Warriner, ‘the starting point for the supply of class ‘A’ drugs is four years and a half years imprisonment after a trial. Mr Morris that is the type of elementary piece of information that any practising criminal lawyer should know.’
Paul looked down at his notes, he felt the sweat gather around the rim of his new wig, he felt his insides implode with his own uselessness – three years in University and another year in Bar School for this?
But, when he looked up, he saw Judge Warriner looking at him, his face was no longer raging, his eyes were no longer ablaze.
‘Mr Morris,’ he said, softer now, ‘do you know something,’ he paused before continuing, as though the weight of what he was about to impart upon Paul Morris was bearing down upon him, ‘this is my last case.’
Paul Morris looked up and met the Judge’s gaze.
‘There used to be a tradition when I was starting out that a Judge conducting his last case could be lenient. What do you think about the traditions of the Bar and Bench Mr Morris?’
Paul now had a decision to make, was he a traditionalist or was he some maverick. Should he grovelingly uphold the ways of Court, or should he challenge them? Indeed, he wasn’t sure what the Judge wanted him to say.
‘I think,’ he started.
‘No,’ said Warriner, ‘you don’t think, you submit, what do you submit?’
‘I submit,’ Paul paused hoping that the right words would come to him, ‘I submit,’ he paused again, as the sweat now cascaded down his face, ‘that compassion should always be a tradition of the Bar and the Bench.’
Those present in Court said they’d never seen it before. Perhaps it was the sudden cessation of the pressure of being a judge, perhaps it was the hopeless naivety of the answer proffered by the young barrister, perhaps he realised that his decision to announce his retirement without anyone else knowing would be a cause for celebration amongst those who appeared before him, or perhaps, he just agreed – compassion should always be a tradition of the Bar and Bench.
‘And why should I show your client compassion?’ he asked.
‘Well Your Honour, he made a mistake, he meant no harm, perhaps he deserves a second chance. He won’t do it again.’
Warriner seemed to look into the distance, perhaps he was recalling his own first day, his own first submissions in front of a judge.
After what seemed like an eternity, he finally spoke.
‘He’ll go to prison for two years.’
Paul felt the air leave his lungs as if he’d been punched firmly to the solar plexus, he knew that behind him, Connor Mallinder would have heard the words explode in his head with utter devastation: prison, two years. Paul had failed. It was his first case and he’d failed and he’d looked foolish. He looked down at the bench in front of him, trying desperately not to betray his feelings in court, trying desperately to retain a professional manner just as he had been taught.
The word boomed towards him from the Judge’s bench causing him to look up again at Judge Warriner.
‘But,’ repeated the old Judge, ‘I’ll suspend if for two years.’
And with that he nodded, got up and walked out of Courtroom 14 for the last time.
Paul Morris felt his mouth break into a smile as he watched Judge Warriner disappear through a door, never to be seen again.
Paul picked up his brief. His first case completed. His first time on his feet. There would be others, many others he hoped, and sometimes there would be compassion.