The power of principle

Mike Guilfoyle
Friday, 1 November 2019

It was when reading imprisoned writer, Ahmet Altan's powerfully evocative book, I Will Never See the World Again, that an enduring memory of a protracted, yet challenging succession of meetings for the preparation of a pre-sentence report came to mind.

When I first met 'Achraf' (not his real name) at the probation office he was accompanied by a friend whose loquacity proved so tiresome that I had to request that he wait outside. This request was respected and Achraf added out of hearing 'He is trying to be helpful ...but sometimes...!'.

I had looked at the preliminary paperwork related to the case, only fleetingly, as the volume of report requests from outside courts mounted at the office. I realised that this case was likely to throw into sharp relief a pressing professional issue of an offence that was ostensibly 'politically motivated’.

The background to the offence was set against the context of a well-publicised, controversial in terms of policing approaches, and at times violent public protest outside an embassy in Central London involving widespread criminal damage. There had been numerous arrests and several punitive and exemplary sentences imposed prior to Achraf's arrest for violent disorder.

I mused as we started the interview, as to how far I should go, as he was candid at the outset that his protest was 'politically influenced' by events overseas and he felt the only avenue was to express his 'solidarity' with those most affected was to protest and 'if that meant going to prison ...well!'

It was clear that we had insufficient time to conclude the appointment at one sitting and as the crown court date was some weeks ahead, I arranged a follow up interview. I spoke with one of my probation colleagues who had recently interviewed another defendant arrested at the same protest. My colleague said, 'I simply had to state to the court that I could offer no viable recommendation, as he was adamant that his protest was lawful!' I mused on this and moved onto the next casework task to hand.

At about this time, I attended the union's annual conference. Whilst there, I had the good fortune to meet up with a colleague whose invaluable professional experience, combined with a steely determination, and who had an unerring ability to maintain a proper measure of professional independence and integrity, whilst fulfilling the statutory probation role during 'The Troubles' in Northern Ireland.

I willingly tapped into her seasoned practice wisdom.' Sure, they called us screws out of uniform' but we earned grudging respect for our humane fearlessness and developing practical and supportive partnerships with all parts of the community’. I returned to the office, now feeling so I thought, better equipped to untangle the threads of politically motivated offending.

Prior to our next meeting, I was informed on a busy office duty afternoon, that there were several people in the waiting area urgently' wanting to speak to me. It soon became apparent that they were relatives of Achraf and I felt obliged to hear what they had to say. I made it clear that I would be mindful of all the concerns expressed.

'He is a good young man, too easily influenced...strong moral character…who supports the underdog...' were some of the many heartfelt observations that I heard.  When we met again, Achraf seemed much more thoughtful and introspective, he had visited one of his fellow protestors, now in custody on remand, and the hard reality of a possible prison sentence seemed to register.

He began to well up and his earlier braggadocio seemed to evaporate. Such was the emotional fall-out that I reluctantly agreed to a third appointment.  At this point we put together a comprehensive report, as the sentencing judge, had noted, custody was almost inevitable. The judge asked ‘I want to hear more about the defendant, who although of good character, has committed a serious offence in a public place'.

When Achraf entered the room for his third interview, he stood unnervingly motionless for several seconds, looking into the near distance.  He muttered defiantly, 'better to fight for what one believes in, than to run away and hide’. I outlined my considered observations and offered what I thought would be a construed as a fair-minded and objective assessment, balancing risk and harm, with the potential for reparative action available to the court.

Whilst identifying the negative impact of custody and the penal obligations inherent in any sentence beyond 12 months to report on licence. I had viewed several character references and suggested to Achraf, that he might pen a letter to the judge, which would offer personal statement and might act (I stated this with some circumspection) to influence his decision.

The sentencing hearing was due at the end of the week and I felt some apprehension, that I decided not to share, that this judge was unlikely to step outside his sentencing remit, with so many others so sentenced during this protest cascading headlong into the prison system.

On the day of sentence, I received a call from the crown court, a breathless probation colleague, in between courts (Friday was traditionally a busy day for sentencing). 'Judge *** has followed your proposal, custody but suspended for two years! And he noted that you had worked hard to ensure the defendant remained in the community’, my colleague reporter that the judge had said ‘I am just persuaded that Mr Guilfoyle has assisted the court to the right will not get a second chance'.

I did not expect to see Achraf again. In fact, shortly thereafter, I was alerted that a 'delegation' (quipped an amused colleague who was entering at the same time) was waiting outside, wanting a brief word.

I somewhat self-consciously left the office and was warmly embraced Achraf’s relatives expressing their appreciation for my 'kind words' which meant his ailing parents would not have to see him 'behind bars'.

What I did not know, at the time was that his parents had themselves been imprisoned for 'political reasons' and had barely survived their detention before moving to London as refugees. I knew that Achraf worked in a community centre and was described as  ‘someone who takes pride in what he does, does it well and seems to relish defending the underdog'.  Indeed, on one occasion he had persuaded a session supervisor to rescind a warning for threatening behaviour -namely 'gesticulating in an offensive manner when the *** ambassadors’ car unexpectedly passed the work party in a public place'!

Mike Guilyfoyle is a retired probabtion officer