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Richard Barr Writer (and lawyer)


This is not an editorial, but it marks the release of Sally Clark when her second appeal succeeded.


"It's more than a job. This is a passion for us. Human space flight is a passion. It is an emotional event." So spoke Ron Dittemore, the Space Shuttle Programme Manager from NASA, when, clearly close to tears, he addressed a news conference hours after the Columbia Space shuttle went down.

I am sure that plenty of SJ readers felt a compelling sense of loss when the news was announced. People die in tragedies every day all over the world, and often their passing is hardly noticed. But we all harbour what the science fiction writer John Wyndham described as “the outward urge”. Deep down there is an astronaut in all of us.

We share a vicarious passion for the efforts of the brave crew of the Columbia who must have known the high risk of what they were doing. Statistically, before they took off they stood about a one in one hundred chance of dying, but felt driven to do it anyway, and to push against the limits of human achievement. But is passion something we are lacking in the solicitors profession?

Passion and risk of dying were both brought to the fore in this country last week. Passion because there has been a small band of solicitors working tirelessly to achieve justice for the solicitor Sally Clark whose wrongful conviction for murdering her two baby sons was belatedly overturned by the Court of Appeal.

It is believed that one of the reasons why Sally was convicted was that a prosecution witness, who ought to have known better, gave evidence at her trial that the chances of two children in the same family dying as a result of a cot death were one in 73 million – and therefore by implication the odds were overwhelming that Sally murdered her sons. The figure was nonsense of course, and it now transpires that, if there is one cot death in a family, the chances of another occurring in the same family are around one in 100.

In December 1999, shortly after Sally had been convicted, I said this in an editorial in the SJ:

The death of her first son was initially put down to natural causes: a cot death. It was only when her second son died that suspicions were raised. The prosecution initially alleged that she had shaken her second son Harry to death. However, shortly before the trial, a key prosecution pathology witness had to concede that on re-examination of the slides the evidence was not consistent with death by shaking, and that she must have smothered her son.

By the time the case had concluded, none of the five prosecution witnesses was able to assert categorically that the deaths were not due to natural causes.

It is good that justice was eventually done (though with no great thanks to the Court of Appeal who dismissed her appeal first time around), but why did it take more than 3 years to get her freed, and would she be free yet, had it not been for the efforts of her solicitor husband and of other solicitors Sue Stapely and John Batt who campaigned tirelessly for her release?

As a footnote to Sally's case the Law Society (whom I do not always praise) should be commended for being far sighted enough to appreciate the problems with Sally's conviction, and NOT to strike her off the roll.

There are, it is true, passionate solicitors in the country. For years Martyn Day has been fighting to make the law effective to achieve justice in difficult cases, such as emissions from nuclear plants - or from cigarettes.

More recently a small London firm H2O has made the news. It will be difficult for solicitors of the old school (used to the styles of firms representing the surnames of seedy senior partners) to have proper regard for a firm practising under that name, but these guys should be taken very seriously indeed, for they are the ones who are bringing civil actions against the alleged perpetrators of the Omagh bombing. With the easier civil standard of proof, the senior partner of H2O, Jason McCue hopes to succeed where the criminal law has failed. Talking to the Times last month he said:

"Let's say we get judgment. We can say we want £20 out of every £100 they earn for the rest of their lives. We could tag it onto their earnings, so that every day the go out to work they would realise that two hours of their day is going to repay the victims' families. That would be natural justice."

Good stuff, and though it may seem odd to compare solicitors with astronauts, it is 'pushing the envelope' in much the same way as those involved in space exploration.

Which brings me in no logical way at all to aardvarks. A less sombre piece of recent news is the announcement that scientists have discovered that we (and all other mammals) are all descended from aardvarks. This helps to explain a lot, as it means that other mammals too are our close relatives. If the judge who peers over his half moon glasses and looks for all the world like a venerable goat, the chances are that that is exactly what he is. And those rotund solicitors with porcine features whose only response to verbal communication is to grunt are from clearly the pig side of the family tree. And sharks.... but let's not go into that.

And the more you think about it, the more those around us resemble other warm (and even cold - ) blooded creatures. No prizes for matching senior politicians and judges with orang-utans, guinea pigs, gerbils and ferrets. If you then blend in the theory put forward by the astronomer Fred Hoyle, that all life on earth was originally seeded from outer space, then that must be an encouragement, despite the set backs, for space exploration to continue. Who knows, there might be a world somewhere waiting to be discovered which is completely populated by alien solicitors with soup plate eyes and three heads.

Scary they might be, but passionate they will be.


Published in Solicitors Journal 7 February 2003

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