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The significance of a recent High Court housing law case cannot be underestimated – both legally and practically – in bringing to the fore the practical effects of local authority allocation schemes, writes Martin Khoshdel. Read more >
A fictionalised account of hidden battles during an ‘ordinary’ court day. By Rehna Azim
That’s me. I’m on the wall of every courtroom in the land. Each day I look down over the heads of judges, into the eyes of the barristers and solicitors and straight into the hopes and prayers of the clients who sit behind them. I’m two pretty formidable forces in their corner as they enter the ring. Perhaps the two greatest forces ever. Not that I can always help everyone. For some it’s like going into the fray to face Darth Vader, armed with the biggest, bestest, most powerful lightsaber on all the planet, only to discover at the crucial moment that it’s blown a fuse.
From my vantage point I see everything; the rolled eyes, the muttering under the breath, the boredom, the fear and the fake bravado. And that’s just the lawyers on the front row. I see them on the days when they really shouldn’t be here. When they’re hiding grief, illness, divorce, crippling guilt at having left a sick child with nannies or an elderly parent with paid carers. I want to tell them then, go home today. We can carry on without you. We were here long before you came and we’ll be here long after you’re gone. Go on, take a break. You deserve it. You’ve earned it.
Take Phaedra Parker today. Always cool and composed in her hand-stitched Italian skirt suits and expensive high-heeled shoes. She arrives an hour before the case is due, armed with a laptop and iPad and the latest smart phone, as well as a printed bundle of papers in case the electronic devices malfunction. Each page is meticulously underlined in red pen and cross-referenced with multicoloured highlighters. She’s sympathetic but brisk in her manner with clients and lethal in her cross-examination of witnesses. Judges relax when they see her in the case, knowing that they won’t have to work so hard because she’ll hand them their decision in her incisive closing submissions.
But if you look carefully today, you’ll see that her hands are trembling. Every few minutes she glances down into her handbag to look at the mobile phone she’s left switched on. She’s waiting for a response to the 15 messages she has left for the man she believed, until two hours ago, to be her fiancé. And she’s also afraid.
It started yesterday evening. After a day of skilful cross-examination that had drawn compliments even from her opponents, Miss Parker climbed the steps outside the door to her house with a light step and put the key in the lock.
‘So this is where you live, then!’
Miss Parker turned, gazed at the unhealthy pallor of the face under a grey hood and tried to remember where she had seen it before. Miss Parker blinked several times. Court. That’s where she had seen it. In three different sets of proceedings. Each time she had sought to remove a baby from the care of the pitiful young woman staring triumphantly up at her. She cleared her throat.
‘Um, actually no. It’s a friend’s place. And you shouldn’t sneak up on people like that.’
‘How comes you’ve got a key then?’ Michelle Harbour’s triumphant tone turned to a sneering one.
‘I’m house sitting,’ said Miss Parker, instantly hating herself for such a lame lie.
Michelle snorted loudly. ‘D’ya recognise me, then?’
‘Yes, of course. Hello, Miss Harbour.’
‘Hello, Miss Harbour,’ Michelle mimicked cruelly. ‘Like you was expecting me for tea.’ The contempt oozed from her in Miss Parker’s direction. ‘Bet you never thought you’d bump into me round here?’
Miss Parker collected herself. ‘No, I don’t suppose I did,’ she said firmly. ‘But it’s a free country. Now, if you’ll excuse me.’
She turned, flicked the key in the lock and pushed the door open.
‘I just went to see that psychologist, like you all wanted me to.’ Michelle shouted desperately. ‘That’s why I’m in your posh area.’
‘Good. I’m pleased you’ve finally seen him,’ Miss Parker soothed, without turning around. She stepped inside her home.
On the street below, Michelle’s body began to shake. ‘Aren’t you gonna invite me in for tea and cake, you fucking slag?’
The door slammed.
‘Bitch!’ Michelle’s yell echoed down the tree-lined street and through the sturdy wood of Miss Parker’s front door.
On the other side, Miss Parker pressed the weight of her body against it as if making sure it was fully secured against invasion. Her breath came in short gasps.
She slept badly that night. Marc, her fiancé of three months was away for work and she felt a sense of unease. Twice in the night she rose, tiptoed to the sitting room and carefully raised a corner of the curtain to peer out into the dark, silent street. She had read enough expert reports about Michelle to know how unstable the young woman was and how easily her inner turmoil could come out as violence against those she perceived to have done her wrong. Phaedra Parker had done her wrong each time she had successfully applied for orders to remove the three children from her neglectful care. At the end of each hearing Michelle had screamed that she would see Phaedra Parker, the judge and the social worker six feet under for stealing her jewels from her.
Now Miss Parker sits calmly, waiting for the judge whom she will invite to place Michelle’s fourth baby for adoption. She ignores the dagger stares boring into her back from the row behind. Only I see how her hands shake as she flicks through a notebook for something to do.
Michelle’s hands too move in agitation. She compulsively zips and unzips the same grey hoodie she wore yesterday when she came across her hated child snatcher.
How Michelle would cackle if she knew that at 8am this morning her enemy received a telephone call asking if she was okay. ‘Yes,’ replied Miss Parker picking up a copy of Michelle’s psychological report from the clerks room, ‘why shouldn’t I be?’
Well, said her friend carefully, measuring each word, because of the, um, news. The news was that Miss Parker‘s fiancé had married another woman the day before. Miss Parker stared unseeingly around the room. A junior clerk looked up at her with concern.
‘Well, thank you for letting me know,’ she said, her mouth dry with shock. ‘Must go, have to dash to court.’
‘Everything okay?’ the junior clerk asked.
‘Fine,’ Miss Parker replied. She grabbed the wheelie which contained her devices and the carefully paginated printed bundle and raced out.
Now she sits in court, unflappable as ever, the consummate professional, ready to do her job. She’ll wait to weep and throw up in the toilets during the luncheon break.
Further down the front row, Michelle’s barrister’s hands are steady, but every so often his face flushes crimson and his top teeth hook hard into his lower lip. Malcolm Burleigh too has his phone on. Every so often he looks at it to see if there’s a message from his brother. Their 80-year-old father, suffering with dementia, has been missing for 18 hours. The police have had to be notified and a photograph is circulating on social media asking for information on sightings. Mr Burleigh’s face goes red whenever he remembers how helpless he feels. He’s miles away from where his dad might be and he’s at work while his brother is out in his car looking for the old man.
‘I’ll come up as soon as my case is finished,’ he told his brother this morning.
‘Might be too late by then. But you can’t let your client down.’ The accusation that, instead, he was letting his family down, hung heavily in the air before his brother hung up, saying he had to go. ‘Every minute counts in a situation like this.’ So, like Miss Parker, Mr Burleigh sits and waits for the judge, biting into his guilt as time ticks by.
The judge is late. His Honour is on the phone to his weeping wife. The surgery just rang her. The judge’s test results have come back and the doctor has asked that he come into the surgery urgently, ideally with someone. ‘We’ll go in tomorrow morning before court, if I can get an appointment that early,’ he soothes, but his heart is fluttering wildly in his chest. Of course, it can’t be good news. But he has a full list to get through.
Last November I wrote a piece for Counsel, recalling an experience of robing room bullying I suffered as a young, new barrister. The response from readers was incredible. From pupils to Court of Appeal judges, I received messages of thanks for bringing to the fore something many experience but don’t feel able to speak about, usually for fear of being seen as ‘weak’. Most poignantly, a number of people shared their own stories of being bullied by fellow advocates. In some cases it had happened years, even decades, ago but the experience had seared itself into their memory and they finally felt able to tell someone about it.
It made me think of other experiences and problems that we keep quiet, for fear of being judged, often to our emotional detriment. We often hear now that we should ‘be kind’ because we don’t know what battles those around us are fighting. Together with Henrietta Hill QC from Doughty Street Chambers, I’ll be exploring some of these topics in future articles for Counsel and a forthcoming podcast on itsalawyerslife.com.