A Game of Proof

Three things inspired me to write A Game of Proof – a rapist, a lady in the newspaper, and my daughter.

The rapist was a really nasty piece of work. I’m a teacher of English to foreign university students, and I sometimes take them to court, to see English justice in action. The Crown Court in York, where I live, is a beautiful, imposing building. It was built in the eighteenth century, and has tall Grecian columns, a statue of justice with her spear and scales on the roof, and a museum that used to be a prison right next door – where the highwayman Dick Turpin was kept before he was hanged. The court and the old prison form three sides of a square around a grassy area called the Eye of York. On the fourth side of the square is a castle. So you can see it’s an impressive place to visit.

But the rapist – Les – wasn’t impressive at all. At least not in a good way. He was a very fat, burly man, who filled the dock with his bulk. He dwarfed the two prison guards who sat beside him. From where I sat with my students – in the gallery directly behind him – we had a striking view of his buttocks, where his trousers didn’t come up quite high enough.

Well, we were there for the key moment of the trial – the poor woman, his victim, had to give evidence. It was very sordid and humiliating. She had been out for a drink with Les, came home with him, and he invited her up to his bedroom, where – it happened. She described in graphic detail what he’d done – without her permission – and then his lawyer stood up, in his wig and gown, and made her go through it all over again, suggesting she wasn’t telling the truth. It was awful. All in public, with a load of students – us – watching from the public gallery.

A few days later we heard the verdict – not guilty. Like so many rape trials, it was his word against hers, and the jury had believed him. After all, they’d both had a lot to drink, she’d gone up to his bedroom – what did she expect?

But there was an important detail that the jury didn’t know. Before the trial started, the two barristers had a tense argument before the judge. Les had been charged with two rapes – one against this woman, and one against a completely different woman, on a different day. The prosecutor wanted both women to give evidence in the same trial, but the defence said that wasn’t fair: they were two separate incidents, so there should be two separate trials. And the defence won the argument, so that was what happened. As far as the jury were concerned, he was charged with one rape, not two.

A few weeks later, I was back in court to watch the second trial. This time, it had happened on board a ship. The second woman – who, it has to be said, was not the brightest – was on her honeymoon. She’d stayed up drinking and dancing until after midnight; but, amazingly, not with her new husband. No; he’d gone to bed, and she’d stayed up dancing with Les. You can see why the jury looked at her a bit oddly when this detail came out.

But then, as they wove their way drunkenly back towards the cabins, Les had suddenly opened a door to a cleaning cupboard, and bundled them both inside. Maybe she agreed to this, maybe she didn’t. But she was clear about one thing: she definitely didn’t agree to what happened inside. Because the trouble with Les was, he had a particular style of rape. It involved ropes and gags and things like that. Not nice at all. This woman objected to it strongly.

But as I listened to this I realised a terrible thing. I had heard this story before! The woman in the previous trial had told exactly the same story, with exactly the same perversions, about exactly the same man. I knew this, and so did the judge, and both barristers and the police and the court clerk knew it – but no one told the jury. The jury weren’t allowed to know; after all, he’d been found not guilty in the previous trial. And guess what – he was found not guilty this time too.

I left court thinking that the law and justice were not quite the same thing. If the jury had heard those two women tell their stories together, surely the verdict would have been different.

The second thing that inspired me was an article in the Yorkshire Post. It was a feature about a woman who’d grown up in inner-city Leeds, and left school at sixteen. She seemed destined for work in a shop or a factory or possibly on the streets as a prostitute. But she’d avoided all of these things. She decided to make something better of her life after all. She went to evening classes, passed a few exams, and was smitten by the love of learning. She was so good at it that by the age of thirty – a bit older than most people – she did a law degree, went to the Inns of Court, and qualified as a criminal barrister. That’s not easy, I thought. Not easy at all.

I know how had it is, because my own daughter – who had the benefit of a good education – qualified as a barrister too. I saw how hard she worked. Lots of people don’t make it; they drop out along the way. For those who make it all the way, it’s a triumph; an achievement to be proud of. And even then, you’ve got to compete to find work.

But how would it feel, I wondered, to be the barrister who had defended Les? To read the evidence of those two women, to see how similar, almost identical, their stories were; but for the sake of your client, to persuade the judge that each case should be tried separately? And then to win both cases, and to be congratulated for getting him off? How would that feel?

I asked my daughter about that, and she gave me the title for the book. ‘The law isn’t about justice, Dad,’ she said. ‘It’s just a game. A Game of Proof.’

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