This post is one in the line of reminiscences of my life at the English Bar. More exactly, it is another story of my days of pupillage (“on the job training”) as a newly-minted barrister in 1992-93, still under the control of a “pupilmaster” (though, as explained in other posts, my “pupilmaster” was in fact the same age as me, a consequence of my “rolling stone” or “wander-bird” youth). It tells the story of a fairly minor series of thefts, but at the same time says something about UK and even European society generally.
A timeworn joke says that the first line of an old Hungarian recipe for chicken goulash starts, “First, steal a chicken”…Well, in this story there was no chicken but what there was was an Arab Gypsy woman in East London who was expecting a baby. Well, a baby needs all kinds of things and especially clothing, so the family of that woman– a man, a boy of 14, the pregnant woman, our defendant (an exceptionally beautiful girl aged about 18 who was a cousin of the pregnant woman), and another woman– set out one fine morning to steal the requisites. Their chosen emporium was British Home Stores, Ilford, part of East London.
The aforesaid shopping expedition was initially successful, but came to an abrupt end when the “shoppers” were arrested by police as they were getting into their car, laden with their “acquisitions”. A woman store detective had noticed them and had alerted her colleagues and the police.
It is at this point that the story becomes interesting from the “crime and punishment” point of view. The man arrested was not charged, on the basis that he had not entered the store, not handled the goods and had not admitted knowing anything of the thefts. The 14 year old boy, having admitted acting as a look-out (a pretty poor one, as it turned out), received a police caution. The other women admitted theft in the magistrates’ court and were fined £50 each. So that left our defendant, who was called something like Maroush or Marousha.
Now it transpired that Maroush was also going to be sentenced for being part of a gang which had visited towns in Dorset and Somerset and had stolen quite large amounts from shops by distracting the cashiers while the tills were open (in fact, they could somehow get them open, silently and in seconds, even when the tills were closed). Maroush was a minor player in that game but would be sentenced with several others, they like her having pleaded to those offences, after the conclusion of her shoplifting trial.
Now the point was that theft is an either-way offence and Maroush could have pleaded guilty in the “mags”, in which case she would no doubt have received a £50 fine like the others. Why she had decided to elect Crown Court trial, God knows. We only got her case at the Crown Court stage.
So it was that we all appeared at Snaresbrook Crown Court one day. Snaresbrook is a large rambling building near the end of the Central Line in Essex, and which even then had, I believe, 26 courtrooms (Wikipedia says 20, but that was in 1988; trial was in 1992; it’s pretty big, anyway…). One thing that struck me was when pupilmaster and I were provided (by the Crown Counsel) with a copy of a short Home Office report marked “Restricted”, all about Maroush’s clan origins.
It seems that Maroush came out of a clan of Arab Gypsies who lived (no doubt in poverty and on the margins of Arab society) in pre-WW2 Libya. The Second World War dislocated the states and colonies around the Mediterranean. The clan took the opportunity, after the war finished, somehow to get to Italy. They were eventually granted residency, and some, citizenship. The EEC/EC/EU arrived, with its “free movement” provisions. The clan then moved to somewhere where they could live off the host population more easily– the UK. The Home Office report was fairly direct, which perhaps was why it was “Restricted”: one would not want the British people or Press to see the truth…In fact, the report made it clear that few if any of the 5,000 Arab Gypsies of that clan then living in and around London had remunerative work. They all lived from theft, begging and State benefits.
The trial itself should have taken a day, but in fact took three, to the irritation of the judge. Pupilmaster was usually extremely long-winded, almost absurdly so. In fact, because the trial only ended late on the third day, sentence had to be put off to a fourth, because the other “£50 note trick” defs would be sentenced alongside Maroush. In the event, she was –almost inevitably– convicted of the Ilford shoplifting, and was sentenced to, if memory serves, 22 months’ imprisonment, though most of that was for the Dorset/Somerset offences. Still, she would have been better off pleading to the shoplifting, in the mags. She cried in the dock. I felt sad (I was younger and perhaps more sensitive then).
Not sure why that trial has stuck in my mind: the Home Office report? The youth and beauty of the defendant? The manifest silliness of her decision both to fight the shoplifting charge and, far worse, to do so in the Crown Court? All was put to one side over a few beers in the nearby Spread Eagle pub (if I recall the name aright) not long after. Life went on.