Mike Guilfoyle remembers some of the people he worked with in court
There was an immediate emotional resonance for me, albeit with a culturally distinctive tone, after reading Caroline O'Nolan's sociologically insightful courtroom-based research on the pivotal role that the Irish District Court plays in the Irish criminal justice system.
One important aspect of my former role as a probation officer was preparing what became known as 'fast track/delivery’ pre-sentence reports for the criminal courts. At one particular Magistrates’ Court, I recall the stuffy subterranean office allotted for this purpose, where three defendants were waiting to be interviewed (for offences of low/medium seriousness), on the day in question.
The first defendant, 'John' (not his real name), was very familiar with the court setting. His appearance in custody earlier in the week had caused some disquiet, as his appearance and demeanour suggested that maybe a mental health assessment would augment the need for probation intervention. There had been a recent psychiatric assessment (undertaken at court on a different day) and arrangements were well advanced for his transfer for in-patient treatment, under the Mental Health Act 2007. The interview was curtailed when another nearby defendant became somewhat truculent when he sensed that his liberty was in jeopardy due to outstanding matters which had come to light since his remand.
John was prepared to agree to the proposal of a deferred sentence to enable formal mental health treatment to be undertaken and I conveyed this later in my submission to the stipendiary magistrate (now district judge). The magistrate followed the proposal, properly enquiring as to the timings and what treatment options health providers could offer.
Without catching my breath, I then interviewed 'Sonia' (not her real name) who had been bailed to attend her appointment later in the morning and had appeared promptly with a 'friend' whose presence I suggested might be better served in the waiting area, rather than as a voluble companion (security staff had already spoken to her about her behaviour!).
During this time, harassed legal representatives would sometimes knock over-zealously on the probation office, also in the basement, to enquire as to the availability of court reports (on the day aside from the fast track reports).
Having completed the hour-long interview with Sonia, whose predilection for purloining high-end consumer goods, at some of the nearby fashionable retail outlets, pushed her close to the custody threshold. The court had indicated that 'probation should have regard to the value of the property stolen and the disregard the defendant shows for court orders' in its assessment.
I had liaised with Sonia's supervising probation officer and although she had been cooperative and showed some inklings of wanting to distance herself from her offending, there was still a lot of groundwork to cover and the bespoke ‘acquisitive offending’ group work programme was yet to be undertaken.
I tried to cover the salient issues in my submission and went into court so that the district judge could seek further clarification, should the need arise. In the event, the district judge was minded to follow the proposal for a concurrent term of supervision, laced with a well-scripted dollop of judicial declamation, 'should you find yourself before me again you will not be so fortunate!'.
I then was alerted to the fact that a further defendant, 'Ronald' (not his real name), was becoming impatient that he was still waiting for his interview. I spoke to the court escort staff, advised that their presence might be needed in view of his expressed hostility and lack of cooperation during his transfer from prison. It was apparent that the interview could only now take place through the wicket of the prison cell as all interview space (much to my chagrin) was being used.
Ronald was at best incoherent during our exchanges and I sensed an uncomfortable indication that his aggressive demeanour - essentially contorted facial communication, exacerbated by the distancing dictated by the formal cell barriers, meant that I could not reasonably offer a viable sentencing proposal. The information gaps and worrying behavioural mannerisms, issued in 'threats to harm' and disordered articulations, led me to request the preparation of a full pre-sentence report.
The index offence was common assault/threatening behaviour but there was professional discretion to delay such a request if the probation officer felt that the pattern of offending/behaviour merited more detailed assessment. I proposed this course of action to the court and the request was agreed to. But this was far from a popular option for Ronald, as it meant (in view of his associated domestic situation and lack of stable address) a further remand in custody. As he was being led from the dock, he gave me a fiercely dismissive look which, whilst unnerving, was unsurprising.
When passing by recently, I noticed that the court building was due to be converted into a boutique hotel, one of whose features will enable would-be visitors to recreate their own night in the nick!
I had a momentary thought, what if such visitors took to heart, Ronald's defiantly mouthed plea as he was being led from the court, 'who will be coming to see me at Brixton, then?’
Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer