A bruising judicial encounter

Mike Guilfoyle
Tuesday, 16 March 2021

As a devotee of judicial memoirs, I recently read a refreshingly honest, lively and engaging biography of a maverick pioneer of US drug and problem-solving courts, Judge Jeffrey Tauber.

His recollections stood out for me not least because of his thoughtful judicial commitment to reducing the penal urge to incarcerate, as well as to creatively tap into the healing and redemptive embrace of local communities in an evidence-led attempt to reduce offending. I certainly cannot recall in my twenty years as a probation officer an occasion when a judge stepped into the well of the court to play his tenor saxophone! 

Reading the book evoked a memory of a bruising judicial encounter, albeit one tempered by a probation intervention, and a day which left an emotionally unsettled professional aftermath. I worked for part of the week as a member of a court probation team preparing pre-sentence and oral reports at one of London's busiest magistrates courts. I was allocated an on-the-day report on Mila (not her real name) who was appearing for sentence on soliciting for prostitution. She had a long and 'persistent' record of such offences with multiple outstanding unpaid fines.

Mila had found her way to the probation office having 'wandered' into the courtroom and experienced the splenetic ire of a stipendiary magistrate (now called District Judge). He had berated her for turning up late for her court appearance and directed her to sit at the back of the room whilst he summarily dealt with two defendants by imposing terms of immediate imprisonment. The custody threshold in his court was expansively low.

Mila was shaking visibly from her encounter with the 'hanging judge' (a role he revelled in and which offered endless lurid tabloid headlines at the time). She was legally represented by the duty solicitor and I set about presenting this particular court with the option of a 'realistic' community sentence, which occupied the next hour or so. It was clear that Mila had experienced coercive and abusive relationships and cared deeply about her 'lost' children (in care) but seem enmeshed in 'street prostitution'.  Enlisting community-based agencies to enable her to move away from this negative offending cycle seemed a pathway to offering a viable and community based, non -punitive exit route as my sentencing proposal.

I addressed the court when Mila was in the dock and asked that the sentence be deferred for six months to enable her to commit to meaningfully engage with a community support group working with sex workers, to make reasonable efforts to repay her outstanding fines/costs and retain contact with probation. After some theatrical scowls and spiky judicial asides, the magistrate bellowed, 'Do not attempt to make a mockery of this court'. A period of deferment of sentence was imposed.

Mila responded positively to the terms of the deferment, although she was arrested over this period for outstanding warrants which were dealt with, I was later informed, with more judicial moderation.

I returned emotionally drained to the field probation office I worked from after completing a further three stand-down reports on the day. I had planned to join up with colleagues after work to wind down and find some much needed cathartic release at a beer festival. As I entered the office, I walked past a client leaving the building whose persona seemed to exude a sad weariness which I found unnerving.

As we set off for the event, a taxi having been ordered, the heavens opened. Another probation client then appeared from the office in a fit of explosive rage threatening to burn the building down, a scene made more dramatic by the torrential rain. We opted to press ahead, frivolously speculating that maybe an incendiary spark would obviate the need for preparing endless computer-generated offender assessments, known by the anodyne acronym, Oasys.

The following day at the office, which had been spared its fiery demise, my colleague who the previous evening had immersed herself in relaxed beery bonhomie, approached me ashen faced: '******* has killed himself'. After a moment or two I recognised who she was referring to, the client who I had passed with a memorably doleful expression. He had departed hurriedly from his office appointment without a word, entered the nearby underground station and thrown himself without warning in front of a tube train. I struggled to fully process all that had happened on that fateful day, offering what collegial support I could muster to my self-questioning probation colleague, mouthing plaintively, 'If only I had offered him more support'.

Although the sadness of this untimely death lingered, we did manage to exchange a mirthful sideways glance a week or so later. The 'hanging judge', who had censured Mila for her 'sordid lifestyle' was himself featured in a widely reported lurid press story, having been caught in an 'unsavoury paying for sex' 'undercover reporter sting, which would later result in his 'enforced' early judicial retirement.

Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer