In the Name of the Solicitor

Looking through the TV listings just now I saw that the 1993 film In the Name of the Father about the Guildford Four, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Emma Thompson, was on last night. I didn’t watch it but seeing it mentioned jogged my memory about a strange incident when I lived in London which I thought I’d share.

One evening in the early 1990s – I don’t remember the exact date – I was sitting in my flat in Bethnal Green when the phone rang. At the other end of the line was Ruth, a member of the admin staff in the School of Mathematical Sciences at Queen Mary, where I was working at the time. She was obviously very upset and it took some time to get her to calm down and tell me what had happened.

Ruth’s boyfriend, an Irish guy called Stephen who lived in Stepney Green, not far from me, and whom I knew a little socially, was in Bethnal Green Police Station. It seems that earlier in the day there had been some sort of altercation in Whitechapel after which one of the two men involved had got into a car and deliberately ran another man over, resulting in his death. The Police had taken Stephen in for questioning despite the fact that (a) he was with a group of friends in a pub at the time of the incident and (b) he didn’t have a car and didn’t have a driving licence. I remember (b) quite well because I was (and still am) a non-driver too. In any case it was unthinkable that Stephen could have been involved in such a terrible thing. Being charitable to the cops, it was obviously a case of mistaken identity.

Stephen had gone voluntarily to be questioned and as far as could be discerned had not been charged but had been there some time and Ruth was getting nervous about what the Police might be up to. There was quite a lot of real or suspected IRA activity in London at that time, and the Police were notoriously hostile to Irish people, even those who weren’t involved in any of that. Ruth’s suspicion was that the cops were trying to stitch Stephen up and not unreasonably wanted to get him a solicitor. But she didn’t know any. Could I help?

Well, the only solicitor I at the time was the chap who did the conveyancing for the purchase of the flat, which wasn’t of any use, but I did have friends in Brighton who worked in the legal profession so I told Ruth I’d make a few calls and see what I could do. It didn’t take long before I got the number of a bloke who worked for a London firm called Benedict Birnberg (which I had never heard of at the time). When I explained the situation he gave me the home phone number of a solicitor colleague, one Gareth Peirce.

I called the number straight away and asked if I could speak to Gareth* Pierce. “Speaking” came a woman’s voice, which surprised me a little, as I had assumed Gareth would be a man’s name, but I went on to explain how I had got her number and what was the issue. She asked me to confirm Stephen’s full name and where he was being held and, to my surprise, said she would go straight away. It was about 9pm if I remember correctly.

About an hour later the phone rang again. It was a jubilant Ruth. Stephen had been released without charge. He was never contacted again about the alleged incident. When I spoke to him later about it he revealed that the solicitor didn’t mince any words in the process of getting him out and the police seemed rather terrified of her. It was only when I went to work the next day and talked about it at coffee-time that someone told me who Gareth Peirce was: she was rather famous, and was the solicitor played by Emma Thompson in the film In the Name of the Father.

At least for a while, this episode gave my work colleagues the entirely false impression that I was someone with immensely useful connections. In truth I had no idea who Gareth Peirce was and never actually met her. As far as I know she acted that evening on an entirely pro bono basis.

*Gareth Peirce was born Jean Webb but changed her name when young. I don’t know why.

3 Responses to “In the Name of the Solicitor”

  1. Prompted by the press misgendering Stacy McGaugh for the upteenth time, I made up a list of unisex English first names, but Gareth isn’t (yet) on it.

  2. James Dunlop Says:

    Superb story!

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