When the law attacks the lawyers

The police have been told to clean up their act on racism. Rachel Halliburtonalso finds them guilty

The heat was oppressive in Stoke Newington police station. When the solicitor Mark Evans opened the door of the detention room, his client was slumped - still highly distressed following a struggle earlier that day that had left him with a gashed head and swollen lip. The custody officer had been obstructive when Evans asked to see the officer in charge of the case, but even at this point the lawyer was not worried since in more than nine years of qualified experience he had never had significant difficulties with the police before. Which was why it came as such a shock when, at the end of the visit, after a brief dispute with an officer, he himself became a victim of physical violence.

In a witness statement provided later for the Police Complaints Authority, Evans described the events that led to his being punched by a police officer. He had demanded an explanation as to why - despite two attempts to get out of the cell - it had taken several minutes for the officer to respond. He was invited to complain to the inspector and wait outside before he was told that he no longer had access to his client at that time.

"I was told to get out," says Evans. "I was then shown to the entrance of the station's front office. After I repeated my request to see the inspector and the client, the officer shoved his nose aggressively in my face and pushed me in the chest. I calmly retorted, 'Now I really do need to see the inspector,' at which he hit me in the chest again, causing my rucksack to fly off my shoulder."

Evans is the first solicitor known to have suffered violence at a police station. But his experience is simply an extreme eruption of the constant tension between police and certain criminal defence lawyers. More and more stories about such clashes are starting to emerge - a fact significant in itself, since lawyers are an inherently cautious breed. Their allegations reveal a disturbing catalogue of incidents, ranging from insults and facile attempts to interfere with the solicitor/client relationship, through to sexual or racial harassment, false imprisonment and other campaigns of serious persecution.

"One of my clients had been approached by the police to become an informer," says Franklin Sinclair of the Criminal Law Solicitors' Association. "He told me that the police had taken him aside and told him they believed I was a big cocaine dealer. He was asked to plant cocaine so they could make their arrest. Luckily he decided to confide in me."

For anybody who has thought seriously about the relationship between lawyers and the police, it will come as no surprise that there is an underlying tension between the two groups. As the leading criminal lawyer Tony Edwards puts it: "We are on opposite sides and we each have a job to do." It is obvious that with such existing tensions, both sides will devote time to spinning careful webs of tactics and undermining strategies.

"I've had telephone conversations recorded between me and clients from prison. On this occasion the tapes were disclosed to us by the Crown Prosecution Service as a comment very late in proceedings," says Rodney Warren, vice-chairman of the Criminal Law Solicitors' Association. "When one of my para-legals in the office listened to the tapes he came to me, and I heard both my client speaking to me and other people calling their solicitors from the prison."

Some inevitable tension arose when the criminal lawyer's position at the police station was strengthened by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, which gave suspects the right to legal advice at all times in the police station. The next blow to police supremacy came with the vast cultural change in solicitor intervention while a client is being interviewed by the police. Ten years ago it was the norm for lawyers to be relatively acquiescent while the police posed their questions. A series of appeals has changed that.

One notable case was that of the Cardiff Three, which revealed that a solicitor had sat back and watched his educationally subnormal client crack after police asked 300 times if he had committed murder. The Court of Appeal judgment ruled that, short of physical violence, the police conduct could not have been worse. This naturally led to questions about what the solicitor should have done to stop the situation deteriorating so badly. It turned out to be a major step in the shift to make solicitors more assertive in defending their clients at the police station.

Ed Cape is director of the Centre for Criminal Justice at the University of West England, in Bristol, and author of the book Defending Suspects at Police Stations. He points out that since 90 per cent of alleged criminals plead guilty once they get to court, it is at the police station interview that most of the important defence work now occurs.

One solicitor, Hazel Jones, sued the Chelmsford police for malicious prosecution, defamation, malicious falsehood and conspiracy. She won £45,000 for "anxiety, distress and humiliation" after the court agreed that the police had wrongfully arrested and detained her for several hours.

Rodney Warren tells of a colleague who was acting for a well-known criminal. "After this criminal was released twice on the grounds of insufficient evidence, my colleague found police were stopping her in her car and asking her to perform routine breathalyser tests. This happened so often that she had to go out in another car registered in her husband's name to stop the harassment."

The perceived opposition between police and criminal lawyers is a disease of the adversarial nature of British criminal law. It has led to a cynical revaluation by some criminal lawyers and academics of what the police actually want. Ed Cape says: "The police are not out to discover the truth; they want to create evidence for the prosecution. The problem is that institutionally they deny this. They say they are discoverers of truth."

Discoverers of the truth, guardians of the law or racist thugs? Whether the police are blazing with missionary zeal or simply under huge pressure to construct a convincing case, there is no doubt that they are dealing with a severe image problem at the moment; scroll back through the headlines that scream about everything from the Stephen Lawrence case and deaths in custody to miscarriages of justice. An alarming caricature of the British policeman looms - a bigot in uniform, violent, arrogant - more like Joseph Conrad's analysis of the police in The Secret Agent than an Agatha Christie bobby.

Of course, many police officers are not like this. They have a difficult job and are under pressure from both their superiors and the victims of crime to perform. The negative press about the police illustrates a culture of arrogance, which has not been helped by successive parliamentary acts that increase rather than diminish their powers. Over the past decade, legislation has effectively abolished the defendant's right to silence and shifted the burden of disclosing evidence from the prosecution to the defence.

It is clear that at a point when police are being forced to address their attitudes towards ethnic minorities, some of them should also look at their conduct towards criminal defence lawyers. They must resist the temptation to class them as one of the enemy and look at ways of working with them to reach fair convictions. The police, more than any other profession, know the dangers of what occurs when an assumption becomes a prejudice. If we are to have a criminal system that avoids the scandals of the past two decades, radical retraining is the only way forward.

The author, a former employee of the Law Society, is a journalist on the "Independent"