John Upton

John Upton is a lawyer who lives in London.

A black cloud of Islamist terror is said to be hanging over the Western world; and specific causes of violence and discontent have disappeared into it. Instead, we promote the idea that all acts of political violence involving Arabs or Muslims, if seen from the correct (that is to say US-inspired) angle, will fit together like a jigsaw to form an image of Osama bin Laden.

David Blunkett’s latest Criminal Justice Bill, this Government’s 12th piece of such legislation since coming to power in 1997, will go a long way to producing a caste of untouchables in this country: those accused of committing a crime. It will strip away safeguards that have taken centuries to accrue, and alienate criminal suspects further from society as a whole. It is an appeal...

“The Anderson ruling took a way from the Home Secretary the power to make the ultimate decision as to how long a mandatory life prisoner should serve; instead, it became one for the courts and the parole board. It was this judgment . . . together with the subsequent tabloid outrage, that provoked David Blunkett’s latest strike against the criminal justice system. He announced that legislation would soon be introduced severely to restrict judicial participation in determining the length of sentences for murderers, a group whose harsh treatment is considered by the Labour Party far too valuable a political currency to be left to the perceived lenience of the judiciary.”

From the outside, –– magistrates’ court looks like a leisure centre. It is built from big blocks of yellow stone and its metal window frames are painted a garish red. There is a cement plaque set into the façade which states that it was officially opened by a Lord Lieutenant. A large plate-glass door opens onto a vaulted vestibule. On the door there is a sticker which...

Showboating: George Carman

John Upton, 9 May 2002

George Carman QC, the best known British advocate of his time, died of cancer on 2 January last year. Shortly afterwards, the Daily Telegraph published an obituary which listed the famous criminal and libel cases he had won, and examined his ferocious court-room reputation before concluding: ‘Away from work, Carman was a reasonably enthusiastic guest on the party circuit, but...

The Labour Government is about to embark in its second term on a radical and repressive programme of legal reform. If the proposals contained in the White Paper Criminal Justice: The Way Ahead are implemented, the Government will have succeeded in dismantling some of the fundamental safeguards which exist to protect defendants in the criminal justice system. Labour’s view seems to be...

Diary: Damilola Taylor

John Upton, 4 January 2001

‘A bastard is a bastard no matter what,’ says the man who gives me directions to Peckham Library. It is about three o’clock in the afternoon, on a steel-grey day two weeks after the death of Damilola Taylor. The centre of Peckham is thronged with police officers, all wearing high-visibility luminous yellow vests, and with equipment strapped around their waists on webbing...

We might well think of 2000 as the year of emotional justice. In Private Eye last month a cartoon of a suited man being chased by a group of youths bore the caption: ‘I’m a paediatrician.’ That same week, a woman was besieged in her home by a group of youths who daubed the word ‘Paedo’ on her wall. She was of course a paediatrician. Whichever way we turn, we see populist measures outlined or tabled by politicians, populist judgments delivered in the courts, and unthinking, vengeful behaviour on the ground. Two cases stand out: those of Myra Hindley and Sarah Payne. In both public fury has prevailed over fairness, the interests of the bereaved over those of the community as a whole.‘

Going Not Guilty: back in court

John Upton, 1 June 2000

We’re all used to watching gritty TV dramas about the crown court with bewigged barristers, mumbling judges and gullible juries. These higher courts are familiar to us and if we were actually to visit them, we would recognise the courtroom (‘Not as good as in Kavanagh’) the waiting area (‘Tosh from The Bill was in one a bit like this last week’) and the formalities (‘It’s just the same as in Rumpole’), but the magistrates’ court is different. It is the place where summary justice is dispensed. If the offence you have committed is not serious enough to merit a trip to the crown court, and the vast majority of offences are not, the magistrates’ court is where your case will be heard. In fact the great majority of cases are dealt with by magistrates. This means that either three lay people or one professional magistrate (a stipendiary or ‘stipe’, as the lawyers call them) listen to your case, decide whether it is proven or not and pass sentence. This is where I am today.

Ready to Rumble

John Upton, 16 March 2000

‘Some day they’re gonna write a blues song for fighters. It’ll just be for slow guitar, soft trumpet and a bell.’ So said Sonny Liston in 1962, after he’d beaten his closest rival, Floyd Patterson, and become Heavyweight Champion of the World. Liston was not known for his sensitivity. Indeed, the facts of his life read like a blueprint for a Hollywood film of the flawed fighter. He was born in Arkansas, the 24th of 25 children. He never knew the date or exact place of his birth, and he was illiterate. He was sent out to work in the fields at the age of eight, picking cotton, peanuts and sweet potato. He was beaten prodigiously by his father and the welts he received were still visible on his adult body. When his mother left Arkansas to find work in St Louis he followed her, but he was unable to hold down a job and turned to crime. By the age of 16 Liston was over six feet tall and weighed more than 200 pounds. He was violent as well as strong and earned his first title, that of ‘Number One Negro’ on the St Louis police wanted list, in 1949. In 1950, he was convicted of armed robbery (his haul was $37). He was introduced to boxing at the Missouri State Penitentiary.‘

There are now two Stephen Lawrences. The first, the murdered 18-year-old victim of racism. The second, a cultural balloon with Stephen Lawrence’s image on it: a balloon so large there is barely any space left in which to think objectively about Lawrence, his murder and the subsequent investigations and Inquiry.

Diary: No bail for Mr X

John Upton, 29 October 1998

To enter Greenwich Magistrates Court you must first go through an airport-style metal detector which squeals at the slightest provocation. The Court is a small Victorian building with wood-panelled court rooms that lead off a waiting area with a mosaic floor. A few rows of green metal seats are bolted to this floor and there is a drinks machine in one corner. To find out which court room you are appearing in, you have to look at the printed lists which are pinned up on one of the walls. There are no specific times given for hearings so when you get to appear in court is a matter of luck, persistence and whether your client (or lawyer, if you’re a client) turns up early or not. The atmosphere in an old court like this is best likened to that of an understaffed Accident and Emergency Department in which none of the patients wants to be treated.


Bloody Sunday

11 July 2002

Muray Sayle’s piece on Bloody Sunday (LRB, 11 July) is dotted with ambiguities and inconsistencies, and it would be useful to have his clarification in a number of areas. First, there is the issue of whether or not there were any shots fired by the IRA. Sayle states near the beginning of his unpublished Sunday Times article of 3 February 1972, written with Derek Humphry, that ‘we can find...
I must disagree with Norman Cho on nearly every point he raises in response to my article (Letters, 19 August). The police took statements from Duwayne Brooks on numerous occasions. How does Mr Cho suggest that Imran Khan’s statement-taking improved the quality of the investigation? Surely it is obvious that a solicitor acting for the family of a victim in a murder (or any other) case should...

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