A brush with the criminal justice system

Mike Guilfoyle
Monday, 22 June 2020

Whilst it was far from being an unexpected departure from my usual staple diet of criminal justice reading, I was jolted in a very visceral way having read the first few pages of Thomas Grant's keenly observed exploration of some of the more sensational criminal cases heard in the Old Bailey.

In my monthly reflection pieces for this website, I evoke vignettes drawn from my past probation practice, reflections prompted in part after delving into some of the books that critically explore criminological inquiry.

The following account is however drawn exclusively from my own direct personal experience of having entered the criminal justice system as a defendant during the 1980s.

In the mid-1980s I had benefited from moving to a former hard-to-let-local authority address in south London as part of an existing mobility scheme for single people then in operation under the auspices of the former Greater London Council (abolished in 1986).

Having lived in the top floor flat for a couple of years without any indications of neighbourly disharmony (although I observed occasional bouts of illicit activity and a periodic police presence) my settled living arrangements were to be dramatically altered in a manner that I could not have foreseen.

New neighbours had moved (I later discovered due to being evicted for anti-social behaviour in another borough) into an adjoining flat.

Not long after their arrival, some unwelcome behaviours began to manifest aimed directly at myself and the neighbours in another adjoining flat. Discarded rubbish would be deposited outside both of our addresses and after some robust verbal representations on the landing outside the flats, it became apparent to me that some form of shared psychological disturbance, maybe a folie a deux (in this instance mother and son both exhibiting a delusional belief system) was hampering any attempts to reason sensibly with either adult.

A short while later both our keyholes were gummed up and next door's window was broken (I began to receive 3.00 am silent phone calls which I found very unnerving and resulted in disrupted sleep). I later opted to go ex-directory to obviate any further such calls.

After some months, the cumulative psychological toll was beginning to show. My neighbour (whose partner was by then pregnant) had approached the well regarded local MP, Simon Hughes for advice and my efforts to engage a local Tenancy Officer and Mental Health Team seemed to deliver little practical assistance.

One afternoon whilst returning to my address, still unsettled by the corrosive uncertainty of not knowing what else might lie in store from the far end neighbours ( the mother was by this time deceased) my near neighbour approached me and clearly at his wits end, blurted out 'I am going to have the b******** shot'. I listened intently, not really believing that this was other than the voice of frustration, and certainly not envisaging any murderous assault on the 'perpetrator' of what was by now a long standing timeframe of episodic anti-social harassment. 

A short while later, I answered the door to be greeted by two inquisitive plain clothes CID officers from nearby Southwark police station. It soon became apparent what the nature of their call was. Mr *** claims he has been assaulted by men wielding baseball bats and has named you as one of his assailants! To say I was left dumbfounded probably does not quite cover the emotional recoil. After some further barely remembered discussion, I was 'invited' to attend the local police station where I would be further questioned about the assault and was advised that I might require legal representation.

On arrival at Southwark police station, I was informed that I would be formally charged with aggravated burglary with intent to cause grievous bodily harm. After being fingerprinted, photographed and relieved of any item of clothing that might be construed as a source of self-harm or suicidal intent. I was escorted to an empty police cell, where I awaited my legal counsel.

For several hours I was locked into a stuffy cell replete with graffiti covered walls and a grubby hard backed mattress (the writing on the walls offering an interesting carceral history!). I had hoped that my 'interrogation' would be short lived as I was expecting somewhat forlornly to attend a social event arranged for the same evening! My legal representative appeared late having, it transpired, travelled from north London. His assistance in what was a rather perfunctory interview, absent of any oppressive questioning, facilitated my release and I was bailed, to appear at the nearby Tower Bridge Magistrates Court.

On the day of my first hearing, I met my co-defendant at the court and read that our joint appearance was listed for later in the morning. On being called into court, as we entered the dock, the charge was read aloud and via our counsel the court was informed that we would strenuously contest the case. The stern looking stipendiary magistrate piped up, 'What is the bail situation?' as the case would be progressed to what was then called an old style committal hearing some weeks hence. After some nervy moments the magistrate enquired, 'But surely Mr Guilfoyle and Mr***** live next door to the alleged victim?'.

My barrister responded, 'He is a man of previous good character who holds down a responsible position and his employers are fully supporting him'. My shaken faith in due process and the considered deliberations of the court aside, his persuasive advocacy resulted in conditional bail being agreed.

Aiming to return to anything akin to normality over the following weeks proved a considerable challenge. I often heard and saw my accuser, most troublingly as he had to pass my address to get to his flat loudly whistling outside my door and I had to restrain any urge I had to remonstrate with him in anyway. At the following court hearing, matters were progressed with due diligence and no change in circumstances was noted.

On the day of the old style committal hearing, the legal representative informed us that should the case be committed, it would be to the Old Bailey before a judge and jury. But to my immense relief the decision was uttered that the crown would not proceed with this case on the basis that there was insufficient evidence to secure a conviction. 

Not long afterwards I moved away from the area and the searing memories of arrest, police interview, cell detention and three court appearances faded over time. 

In 2014 I entered the famed Old Bailey to take the judicial oath to be sworn in as a magistrate. As I was awaiting my turn with other newly appointed magistrates, I had a moment of unquiet reflection. Looking across the historic oak panelled court room towards the dock where the 'prisoner' ( later defendant) would be produced, I had a sudden flashback of many of the more infamous defendants, whose legal fate had unfolded in this courtroom and some of whom are vividly characterised in Thomas Grant's book.

I also wondered, looking a little nervously about as to how close I had come to appearing in this dock. I had darkly imagined what the years ahead would have been like had I been convicted, thinking also as many others have done over the years, how I might have coped with a long prison sentence and how I would gone about righting such a wrongful conviction!

Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer.