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The art of the case for the defence

County View

County View
John Healy

It is said that we Irish are a litigious people, which may explain why the reporting of court cases has long been meat and drink to the local news media. And it seems – this admittedly merely a personal observation – that the incidence of court reporting has increased significantly over the year of the lockdown.
The traditional fascination with court cases, many contend, is that not only are they the outward sign of the wheels of justice in motion, they are also mini-theatre in their own right. The reason so many legal practitioners turn out to be celebrated actors, novelists and playwrights is that the profession itself requires a level of performance if it is to be effectively discharged. As any attender at court hearings will affirm, defenders of the guilty may be advocates by calling, but they are thespians by nature.
The layman, if he knew no better, might imagine a touching innocence on the part of the legal advocate who, defending his client, paints a picture considerably at variance with the known reality. But there are no shrewder people than lawyers in a day’s walk, and making silk purses out of sows’ ears is an essential part of their craft.
Po faced, the skilled advocate can point to a dozen redeeming qualities in even the most hardened miscreant, qualities which nobody has ever seen before. They can point to a latent goodness in the client which, in spite of an arm’s length of previous convictions, have gone unrecognised by the rest of society.
Thus, a recurring theme in the lower courts is the number of defendants who have ‘turned their lives around’ since they fell foul of the law. So numerous and so compelling have been these conversions to the straight and narrow that, in comparison, St Paul’s acclaimed biblical transformation would hardly merit a dismissive ‘So what?’.
And even when a claim of total reformation might seem a tad far, your skilled advocate has a sliding scale of moral achievement on which to draw – a more stubborn client might be ‘trying to turn his life round’, or a tougher nut might be ‘intending to turn his life around’.
The grounds for leniency, of course, offer ample opportunity for the defence to flex its creative imagination. The offence will, invariably, be totally out of character for the accused; he or she will be full of remorse, regretful of the shame being visited on his family. His behaviour was the result of a break-up with his partner, an event which had set him off the rails, but now he is in a steady relationship which is having ‘a stabilising influence’ on him.
In the meantime, he had not come to the attention of the Gardaí (in the three months since he had been caught). He had completed a course as a welder/tiler/deep-sea diver (or will soon do so), and has a promise of employment. He has asked about counselling.
Forty years ago, a standard plea in motoring charges was that the accused needed the car to bring his ageing mother to Mass on Sunday. Changing social mores have moved those goalposts, so that now it is a case of him having become the father of a new baby, and what judge would want to see a babbie born into a fatherless home? Meanwhile the judge, wearyingly, has heard it all before.
But then, as old Judge Barron was fond of quoting to solicitors on social occasions, ‘There is so much good in the worst of us / and so much bad in the best of us / that it ill behoves any of us / to talk about the rest of us’.