A footballer and a probation officer

Mike Guilfoyle
Friday, 2 October 2020

One of my more recent but infrequent forays into the Canadian correctional literature field was reading a lively and absorbing anthology of real life case histories written by a former probation officer, Doug Heckbert, entitled provocatively, Go ahead and Shoot me! 

Whilst I do recall an irate prisoner during a prison visit threatening to dispatch my then line manager in similar tones, what clicked into place, when reading this moving and vivid collection of stories, was a routine interview for a pre-sentence report that almost brought the court to a halt! At the time I spent part of my week on a court duty rota in one of London's most historic magistrates courts (now closed)  preparing what were called 'fast delivery reports' (FDRs) normally completed on the day, with sentencing following shortly after completion.

I first noted Malik (not his real name) in the main waiting area of the court with a couple of relatives. What I had not realised was that most of the other people assembling for a security clearance were his associates. The offence he had pleaded guilty to was driving under the influence of alcohol plus some ancillary offences arising from the incident.

After some heated discussion, it was agreed that Malik would be interviewed alone in what was a stuffy cellular room in the basement of the court. 'Where are you taking me?' he bellowed out, drawing the attention of every person in the vicinity. The presence of uniformed police officers and harried court staff merely served to increase his anxiety. Before I realised, he had returned to the waiting area adamant that he would not entertain any subterranean interview! Mindful that I had two further FDR interviews booked in, I reluctantly agreed to his request that the interview be undertaken on one of the less crowded benches nearby. 'Will I be disqualified and will I lose my chance of playing for ***** ?' Plaintive questions which then elicited some knowing stares from others in the waiting area.

I read the case summary and his antecedent history (a similar motoring offence within the last ten years meant a mandatory three year driving ban) which I held off from sharing until we had covered the pertinent factors behind the offence and issues of harm/culpability had been covered. At this point, an admirer had positioned himself uncomfortably close and asked Malik if he would be playing on Saturday. A resonant buzz then communicated itself throughout the court and a couple of baleful stares from 'rival supporters' meant that I opted to move closer to the nearest security guard. 'But they cannot ban me! I will pay anything.' 

An insightful phrase from a recent important ethnographic study of the management of emotions in criminal justice best captured my misplaced and stilted reply at that point. I explained that I supported another football team and would not have interviewed a player from 'my team' more favourably. Instead of being able to draft the report expeditiously, I was then crudely waylaid into a tirade about my questionable affiliation. I then explained that I would need to present the report to the stipendiary magistrate (now District Judge) in person, which was taken to mean that I was recommending that he go to prison!

The presiding magistrate, who had a wellspring of judicial good sense and a keen rehabilitative outlook (but would not brook any disruptive behaviour in her court) enquired what the earlier commotion was outside the court. I addressed the court and explained that the raised voices were most probably connected to the profile of the defendant in his 'chosen field'. At this pre-digital time, most same day reports were handwritten, so amusingly, straining her stare at my breathless scribble, she asked me to assist her in outlining the impact of any sentence she might impose, for, 'Sadik (sic) 'who plays for *****. I will not hold it against you that you play for ***** but I will follow the recommendation in Mr Guilfoyle's report today'.

After some lofty words on his need to alter his lifestyle, a hefty fine was then imposed and a mandatory disqualification followed, with a stern judicial warning that any breach of the disqualification would most likely result in the defendant's footballing career coming to a premature end courtesy of HMP as have many others who have defied the court from the famous dock he was then standing in. Malik, now much relieved turned to leave the court, asked via his legal representative if this sentence would be wiped off his record in due course. Overhearing this the magistrate uttered, 'You have been offered your second chance and I hope you will not be punished further on or off the field'. 

On leaving the court building with his entourage, a muted but audible sound of, 'There's only one *********' rang out. It later transpired that a previous conviction recorded on his antecedent list had been entered erroneously and an appeal against sentence resulted in a reduction in his period of disqualification. Maybe Malik's agitated outburst was a well merited one, after all. Altogether now, 'He only had one conviction!'

Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer