OUT OF POCKET
It was a nostalgic occasion. Judge Embert Wimple was about to appear in court for the last time. A man might be excused for reminiscing during the event, though no such idea was entertained by his honour as he prepared for his final day as a dispenser of justice – or as near to that as the law allowed. He would, as always, do his duty. The timing was appropriate, as this was April and a new cricket season was imminent. Imbued as he now was with the need to grasp the meaning of life, Judge Wimple was hoping that his long stint would end with a whimper rather than a bang. Furthermore, his recent proposal to Esmeralda that the two might take one of their rare holidays together had been received with enthusiasm. They were now committed to a week in Torquay. Who knew what aspects of a long union might be refreshed?
Now, what was afoot today? Newman versus Ball. Proceeding on the assumption that everything would come out in the wash, the judge did not cloud his mind with any great preparation. However, he did note that he was once more confronted with the two ends of the advocates’ age scale. The prosecution was in the hands of Lorna Perceval, making only her second appearance before Embert Wimple. The defence was represented by the now doddering Simon Fortescue. The judge intended to have a dig at him, having overheard his recent observation that the presence of fogies on the bench conveyed a negative impression to the public and that it was time for ‘Old Wimps’ to be put out to grass. Still, his honour expected Fortescue to appear at the small celebration planned for that evening. Embert Wimple had been promised a tasting of an exceptionally fine manzanilla, his partiality to sherry being well known.
Fiddling with his papers, the judge cast his eyes over the litigants. The plaintiff, Jonathan Newman, appeared to be about sixty years of age. He was dressed in a black suit, black tie, white shirt and gleaming black shoes and had both hands clasped on the brim of a black Homburg hat. The defendant, Dean Ball, was clearly well under half the age of his opponent and was, it seemed to the judge, no respecter of occasions. He wore a scruffy dark-blue windcheater, opened to reveal a stained white tee shirt, plus lavishly frayed grey denim trousers and tan shoes which the judge silently nominated as the dirtiest ever to appear before him. Still, Embert Wimple reminded himself for the umpteenth time, one must not judge books by their covers. He addressed Perceval. “Very well, let us proceed, Ms Lancelot.” As on prosecuting counsel’s first appearance before him, his honour’s train of thought had got him to the Round Table, albeit this time at the wrong seat, let alone the gender.
Being a product of both Oxbridge and the Ivy League, Lorna Perceval not only grasped all the nuances involved, but was also gratified by a fly-past of such proximity. “Thank you, Your Honour. We are dealing with an incident which took place at about one o’clock in the afternoon of the fifth of January this year, less than two hundred yards from here. My client, Mr Newman, has an office in the properties surrounding the public park which lies just across the main road from the court building. Your Honour is perhaps aware that the four short streets surrounding the square concerned are usually lined with cars, many of them deposited there for the day.”
Having spent some time at the spot in question – that of his many recent daydreams – the judge nodded. He also once more noted Ms Perceval’s distinctly horsey appearance. “Yes, I know the place. By the way, are you interested in equestrian matters?”
Again, the breeding showed. Without batting an eyelid, Perceval replied: “Only on Grand National day. I have been known to wager a pound each way on that occasion.”
“Really? I would have thought that a dashing young barrister might risk all on a straight win.”
“Caution runs in my family, Your Honour.”
Embert Wimple was delighted to note Perceval’s adroit avoidance of any pitfalls she might have fallen into by enquiring whether his comment had any relevance. Many barristers had been skewered that way, though on this occasion no trap was intended. Obviously, here was an advocate to be reckoned with. “I see. Well, we can’t chat about these things all day. You were saying . . . ?”
“My client had stepped out to buy sandwiches for his lunch. On the way back to his office, he walked between parked cars, intending to cross the street. At the very moment he emerged into the clear area, a Bentley limousine came along, causing him to leap backwards. He caught a foot on the pavement edge and fell against the park railings. At the same time, the defendant arrived on the scene. He got Mr Newman seated on the pavement and asked him about his condition. My client replied that, considering the economic downturn, he was doing as well as could be expected. At this point, the defendant realised that he was kneeling on Mr Newman’s wallet, which had dropped from an inside coat pocket when my client fell. No doubt motivated by opportunism, Mr Ball picked up the wallet and rushed off. In doing so, he almost collided with a large gentleman who was passing by. In an avoiding action, Mr Ball swerved and ran head-first into a lamp-post, the impact knocking him unconscious.”
“Instant karma,” said the judge, whose recent conversion to belief in reincarnation was now never far from the surface.
“Perhaps. However, by then two ladies returning from their lunch break had stopped to ask my client what was amiss. Now, while the defendant was incapacitated, the large gentleman I mentioned had obviously seen enough to grasp that the wallet, which had fallen from Mr Ball’s hand when he struck the lamp-post, belonged to my client. He returned it to its rightful owner. Before doing so, he exhibited great presence of mind, in that he noted that some items had almost slipped from the defendant’s hip pocket, He was about to push them back, when he saw that one of them was an envelope bearing what he assumed to be Mr Ball’s name and address. He wrote the details on the back of his business card, replaced the envelope and the other things in Mr Ball’s pocket, then went to offer assistance to my client. He helped Mr Newman to his feet, by which time the defendant had recovered and run off.”
“I see,” said the judge. “This left your client, the large gentleman and the two ladies on the scene, did it?”
“Yes, but not for long. The gentleman left as soon as he had provided my client with the information he needed to trace the defendant. Mr Newman seeks recompense.”
“A seemingly reasonable attitude,” said the judge, “considering that he sees himself as the victim of an intended theft.”
Ms Perceval clasped her hands. “It is not the attempted robbery that troubles my client, Your Honour, but rather the ancillary effect. Mr Newman is a stockbroker. He had several deals planned for that afternoon, none of which took place, as his affairs were disorganised by the incident. He cannot quantify the smaller transactions, but on three larger ones, he lost commission of seven hundred and twenty-three pounds. He wishes to be reimbursed.”
The judge raised his eyebrows. “Seven hundred and twenty-three pounds, plus an unquantified amount, for an afternoon’s work,” he said. “Your client seems to be a high-powered operator. Is that all?”
“I believe so, Your Honour.”
“Thank you, Ms Persil. I’m sure you have omitted nothing.” The little jab was unwarranted, as prosecuting counsel had not been excessively verbose. However, the judge felt himself entitled to a little liberty here and there, though he had no doubt that outside the confines of the court, Perceval would have been capable of turning on a blast of hauteur powerful enough to wither anyone in its path. Her crust was, his honour suspected, as upper as they came. “I think we should now hear from the defence.” He turned to Simon Fortescue, whom he had many years ago considered a lion of litigation. Now he noted the drooping shoulders, the pinched look and, above all, the long, narrow nasal beak. Lion of litigation indeed. More like an aardvark of advocacy. The judge’s tittering at that thought caused some puzzlement to his audience. “Mr Fortinbras?”
Shakespearian allusions did not normally loom large in Judge Wimple’s repertoire, but defending counsel was coasting on experience and took the misnomer in his stride. “May it please Your Honour, what we have so far heard is a misrepresentation. The prosecution is correct in saying that my client sprang to the assistance of the plaintiff. Beyond that, there is a divergence of views. It is true that Mr Ball ran from the scene, bearing the plaintiff’s wallet. He did so because he wished to summon the relevant emergency service. It seemed to him that he should be in possession of as many facts as possible and with that in mind, he hoped not only to call for an ambulance, but to give the identity of the victim, which he expected to learn from Mr Newman’s wallet. We suggest that this was a remarkable example of quick thinking. In his anxiety to be of help, he ran into a lamp-post as stated by my learned friend. When he recovered his senses, he saw that the matter seemed to be well in hand, the two ladies mentioned by the prosecution being still on the scene at that moment.”
Realising that this might be the only opportunity to take a cattle prod to old Fortie, the judge leapt in. “Were they nurses?”
“Beg pardon, Your Honour. Nurses?”
“Yes, nurses. I take it that you know what nurses are?”
“Er, yes. I was merely thinking … “
“I’m pleased to hear that. The query arose from my past observations, which have led me to the conclusion that people who hover around accident scenes are often unhelpful and sometimes ghoulish. I was merely trying to establish whether these two ladies were medical people. However, I suspect you cannot enlighten us?”
“No, Your Honour. May I proceed?”
“Of course.” Having hurled his harpoon – and noted the little show of spirit from Fortescue – the judge had switched back to full bonhomie
“I was about to say that, being of a retiring nature, Mr Ball departed. He is not what one might call a gregarious man, in addition to which he could hardly have been expected to appreciate the ramifications of the matter. As far as he was concerned, he had done his best and did not want any further involvement.”
“I understand,” said the judge. “Mr Ball’s actions may have arisen from genuine altruism, blind opportunism, or inherent nefariousness, and we are asked to accept that the first interpretation is the true one?”
“A most perspicacious assessment, Your Honour,” wheedled Fortescue.
Embert Wimple wondered why he was thinking of Uriah Heep. “Is that all from your side?”
“Thank you.” His honour’s eyes switched to prosecuting counsel. “Now, have you anything to add, Ms Perseus?”
Lorna Perceval knew when enough had been said. “I think not, Your Honour.”
“Very well. I believe I have noted everything of relevance and I don’t need to retire. If both parties are agreeable, I will give a verdict.”
Noting that there was no dissent, the judge treated both advocates to a penetrating stare before summing up: “This matter is unusual, in that I am accustomed to having one reprobate in a case, but to have two is abnormal. Lady Bracknell would have had an apposite comment. Let me first appraise the defendant’s argument. I have never considered myself as particularly swift on the uptake, having always tried to be attuned to profundity rather than velocity. Had I been in Mr Ball’s position in this incident, I would have hastened to call an ambulance and would, I imagine, have had no other thought in mind. My credulity is stretched by the effort to accept that Mr Ball’s mental processes were so swift that he considered Mr Newman’s wallet as being potentially helpful in the circumstances described. Still, perhaps the defendant really does think so quickly – we cannot put ourselves in the shoes of others. As the American native proverb puts it, one should never criticise a man until one has walked a mile in his moccasins.”
With counsels and litigants hanging on his every word, the judge cleared his throat and continued: “With regard to the plaintiff, I am equally unhappy about what he has to offer, but in a different way. I sympathise with him insofar as he had an accident, although he should not have walked into the open road without checking the traffic position. To a large extent, his misfortune was of his own making. As to his financial losses, I must say that as he seems to be a businessman of some standing, it defies my imagination that the incident so disturbed him that he lost the profit from an afternoon’s work. After all, it seems that he emerged virtually unscathed and with his wallet returned intact. In my limited experience” – the judge had none – “a man in Mr Newman’s position would normally write off such matter as a small misfortune and get on with his affairs.
“Now, just as we have to choose from the possible motives of the defendant, so we must decide what caused the plaintiff to initiate these proceedings. Is he seeking the fairness we all crave, or is he being vindictive, or perhaps greedy? Ms Parakeet would have me believe the first interpretation, in the same way as Mr Forsyte wishes me to accept that his client’s attempted flight with the wallet was born of humanitarian considerations and that Mr Ball did not have theft in mind.”
The judge’s audience remained spellbound as he proceeded: “We are confronted with a situation in which the defendant’s protestations just might reflect his behaviour at the time, however tenuous the reasoning. If we had jury here, the members would be asked to decide beyond any reasonable doubt. I am in the same position, and have lingering reservations. All things considered, I have no choice but to dismiss the charge. Proceedings concluded, thank goodness.”
The above item ends the Judge Wimple stories.