An unpromising encounter

Mike Guilfoyle
Tuesday, 7 September 2021

I recently started to selectively read pages from a book that I had hidden away for another day.

The subject content concerned the historic design and contemporary usage of the modern day courthouse, but more particularly I found myself gripped by a fascinating chapter entitled, 'Docks and locks in criminal courts.'

The Democratic Courthouse: A Modern History of Design, Due Process and Dignity examines how changing understandings of the relationship between government and the governed came to be reflected in the buildings designed to house the modern legal system from the 1970s to the present day in England and Wales. The book explores the extent to which egalitarian ideals and the pursuit of new social and economic rights altered existing hierarchies. This brought to mind a rather unpromising encounter with a Mr Harris (not his real name), whose regular court appearances in the dock were often greeted with judicial exasperation and despairing entreaties that, 'the probation service really ought to do something for this defendant'.

At the time, the prominence of a residual welfare ethos would often permeate the dialogue between the bench and the court based probation officer. Prior to any court sitting, the court list would be carefully scrutinised for any defendants known to the probation service or would most likely be remanded for reports. Legal representatives would congregate noisily outside the probation office at court, in varying degrees of supplication such that 'their client' urgently needed to see a probation officer. But Mr Harris would mostly appear without any legal representation, having spent his night in the cells for breaking a shop window on the high road and having served a day in lieu (custody) and would be released back into the community.

As he was homeless and experienced chronic alcohol dependency, he was often not burdened by the imposition of costs or claims for compensation. But it was evident that a repetitive cycle of low value criminal damage followed by arrest, overnight detention and conviction meant that he was one of the 'regulars' on the overnight court list. That is until he appeared again before the District Judge on a busy Monday court list.

'Mr Harris, this is your fortieth court appearance, you brazenly smashed another shop window whilst intoxicated so that you could spend a night in a police cell on a cold evening. Your behaviour is incorrigible,' he bellowed. Turning his attention to the probation team in court he almost sighed. 'Mr Guilfoyle, I know that the probation service do work with people on a voluntary basis whose welfare needs need addressing. Would you be prepared to interview Mr Harris before he is released from the cells to find out what assistance he might need?' I agreed to his request, stating that there was a nearby hostel that Mr Harris might agree to be referred to which worked with the homeless who had unaddressed drug/alcohol issues.

I made my way to the cells, the security staff were busily engaged in dealing with other detained prisoners awaiting their appearances. One of my probation colleagues who was interviewing another client caught sight of my mildly apprehensive posture and spoke to Mr Harris, 'This is Mr Guilfoyle, your new probation officer'. He stared angrily in my direction and harrumphed, 'Oh is he?' and stormed off having secured his release papers from the custody staff.

I recall standing uncomfortably rebuffed with the eyes of all upon me. One of the more ribald comments (from a solicitor) being that I might find Mr Harris by following his smell! I later rang the hostel, anxious to act speedily to ensure a referral was made. 'We can only take residents who want to be here,' was the disheartening response. Mr Harris was banned from this hostel for breaking the reception windows.

Without any statutory hold and recognising that Mr Harris would remain at most a very involuntary client. I left matters there. The following week when en route to the probation office I was aware of a commotion ahead. A prostrate individual in a state of partial undress was lying unconscious on the pavement. It was Mr Harris. An ambulance had been called and a voice from the assembled crowd asked, 'Does anyone know who this person is?' Someone else made a less charitable comment, 'He's a f****** wino'.

I somewhat shamefully walked back to the probation office without awaiting for the emergency services to turn up and later shared my professional disquiet with one of my probation colleagues. His opinion was, 'Mike, you have a very active caseload. Mr Harris knows where to turn if he needs help'. Mr Harris did not appear (to the best of my knowledge) on the overnight courtlists again during my time working at that court setting. It later transpired that he never recovered from his 'accidental fall' and the stipendiary magistrate, unaware of this, would sometimes offer an obliging judicial nod towards the probation team at court when Mr Harris's name did not appear on the overnight custody list.

Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation worker