All the World's a Stage
A novel by Bronwen Welsh
Chapter 14 The magistrate's court.
I received a phone call from Stratford police telling me that thanks to the lorry driver’s dashboard camera, they had identified the sports car which had caused me to drive off the road. It belonged to a young man called Malcolm Bridges, but when he was contacted by the police, he claimed it was his mother who was driving on the day in question. She had confirmed this and so she was charged with 'careless driving' and 'failure to stop after an accident'. After getting legal advice she had decided to plead ‘not guilty’, and so would appear at the local magistrates’ court. This meant that I would be called as a witness.
On hearing this I rang the solicitor's office where I had taken out the Statutory Declaration to change my name. I needed to know if I could legally use my name in a court of law.
As an experiment, I had tried dressing as a young man in trousers, a man's shirt and shoes, all bought at a charity shop. I also bound up my breasts which were now B cup size, with a wide bandage. Finally I tied up my hair in a pony tail, and looked at the result in the mirror. I sighed, and walked out to where Mary was sitting and said “What do you think?”
She looked at me. “Are you thinking what I'm thinking?” she said.
“If you're thinking, 'girl trying to disguise herself as a boy and failing badly', that's what I'm thinking,” I replied.
We did manage to laugh about the irony of it.
Naturally enough, the solicitor's office wouldn't tell me what I needed to know over the phone – they couldn't easily charge a fee for that. Instead I was given an appointment to see Mr Lucas of Archibald, Lucas and Smart.
Mr Lucas was a gentleman of the old school, and stood when I entered his office. When we were both sitting down, he told me what I needed to know.
“I've checked your enquiry, Miss Stow. You must realise that this sort of situation is relatively new to us, although I expect we will see more of them in the future. I can assure you that you are legally allowed to use your new name, and the fact that your birth certificate states otherwise in no way means that you are perjuring yourself. We will of course be happy to give you our opinion in writing.”
“Thank you very much, Mr Lucas,” I said, and that was that. In due course I paid what seemed an outrageous amount of money for this opinion, but of course you could also say it was priceless insurance to have written confirmation that what I proposed to do was legal.
For my court appearance I had decided that I would dress in what I termed 'smart secretarial style', a black pencil skirt, just below the knee, white silk blouse over a camisole, stockings and three inch black court shoes. I wore my hair up, and suitable make-up for day wear.
I admit to feeling a little nervous about attending the court, even though I was the injured party. The Magistrates' Court, which is now closed, was in Rother Street in Stratford. As a witness, I was not allowed into the court before I was called to give evidence, so I sat in the corridor outside, waiting for the usher to call my name. Mary kindly came along to give moral support, and since she was not involved, she was allowed into the public gallery. For the first part of the session I have to rely on her recollections of the day.
“I had never been in a court before,” said Mary. “To start proceedings, an usher dressed in a black gown called out 'All rise', so we all stood up. Three magistrates, one woman and two men, entered from a back door behind a raised dais at one end of the court. The magistrates positioned themselves in front of three ornate chairs and bowed to us, and we all bowed back before sitting down. I couldn't help thinking this was something like a theatrical performance. Seated in front of the magistrates was the clerk of the court who is the legal adviser to the magistrates. I found out from the internet that most magistrates are not legal professionals.
“I was seated in the public gallery and looking around, I saw some court officials, some uniformed policemen, and various other people whom I supposed were involved with the cases to be heard. There was an earnest young man presumably from the local newspaper, since he was carrying a reporter's notebook and pen, and he was seated in a small area just in front of me. I was worried for you that someone from the press was there but I suppose it was to be expected.
“Proceedings started with a couple of cases, one for drunk driving, where the man pleaded guilty and received a fine and some penalty points, and another for burglary, where the man pleaded 'not guilty' and the case was referred to a higher court.
“Then your case was announced. A woman in her forties entered the court and sat next to a man whom I assumed was her defence lawyer or solicitor. He wasn’t wearing robes and a wig as I expected, but apparently they don’t in a magistrates’ court. She was asked to stand and gave her name as Helen Bridges, and also her address. The charges of 'careless driving' and 'failure to stop after an accident' were read out and she was asked how she pleaded. “Not guilty, your Worship,” she said in a subdued voice.
“The first witness, Constable Harrison, was called to the witness box. He reported that he had attended the scene of the accident and described what he had observed. He said he had also attended the hospital where you had been taken, and had taken a statement from you which he read out. Neither the prosecution nor the defence asked him any questions.
“Next the lorry driver was called upon to give evidence. He was asked by the prosecutor when he first saw the Bridges’ car.
‘In my rear view mirror when it was already alongside my lorry and driving very fast,’ he said.
‘And when did you see the blue Honda Civic?’
‘A minute or so earlier.’
‘And did you believe the Bridges’ car had sufficient time to pass your lorry and safely return to the left side of the road?’
‘No I didn’t, so I braked hard, which nearly made me lose control, and then I saw the Civic drive off the road to avoid a collision. The whole thing was captured on my dashboard camera.’
‘Your Worships, I would like permission to show the dashboard camera recording at this point,’ said the prosecutor.
“A large television screen was wheeled to the side of the court where everyone could see it, and the recording played. The dashboard camera had recorded the incident and the number plate of the sports car, but since the soft top was up, it was not possible to see who was in the car, nor who was driving. There was an audible gasp when everyone saw how close you were to colliding with the sports car,” said Mary. "The defence lawyer didn’t ask any questions, and then it was your turn to give evidence."
The usher appeared through the door leading into the court and called my name. I stood up and walked into the court and looked around me as I did so. It was an old building and the court had the traditional wood panelling, much as I'd seen in courtroom dramas on the television. I had time to notice the magistrates seated on the raised dais at one end of the court, before I was shown into the witness box, took the oath and gave my name and address. The Prosecutor asked me to describe in my own words what happened that day, which I did. I was also asked about the extent of my injuries. Then I was asked if I had ever seen Mrs Bridges before this day in court and I replied ‘Not to my knowledge’.
I was asked when I first saw the red sports car and I replied “When it appeared from behind the lorry.”
“Are you able to tell the court how many people were in the sports car?”
“I believe I saw two people,” I replied.
“Can you tell the court if a man or woman was driving?”
“I'm sorry, I can’t,” I said.
“At what point did you decide to take action to avoid a collision?”
“It all happened so fast, but it must have been when I felt sure there wasn’t time for the sports car to pass the lorry and return to its side of the road without colliding with me.”
“So you drove off the road and into the gravel verge?”
“Yes. I braked at the same time, my car skidded, and I ran into a tree at the side of the road.”
“And you suffered some injuries?”
“Yes, I was briefly knocked unconscious and my right arm was broken. The lorry driver came over to see how I was. He called the emergency services and an ambulance came and took me to hospital where I was kept in overnight and treated for my wounds.”
It was then the defence lawyer’s turn. He mainly concentrated on my lack of memory of events and asked if I was able to say if a man or a woman was driving the car at the time of the incident. I replied that I didn’t know.
“And how fast were you driving when you saw the sports car?” he asked.
“About fifty miles an hour,” I said. “I haven’t been driving long so I keep well below the speed limit.”
“Thank you Miss Stow, please just answer my questions,” he said. “Just how long have you been driving?”
I replied that it was about six months. I think the defence lawyer suspected from my age that I hadn’t been driving long and wanted to imply that an experienced driver would have handled the situation better. I was also asked whether I had incurred any penalty points to date, which I hadn’t.
That was the end of his questioning and I was told I could stand down. Now that my evidence had been given, I was able to sit in the public gallery and watch the rest of the case.
Malcolm Bridges, a handsome, but to my eyes at least, slightly louche young man was then called to give evidence, and the prosecutor asked how often he asked his mother to drive his car.
“Not very often,” he replied. “But I had been to a party the previous evening; I'd had a few drinks and I was concerned that I might be still over the limit. In any case I felt tired, but I had an appointment in Stratford that day, so my mother very kindly offered to drive me.”
“So your mother is licensed and insured to drive a car with manual transmission?”
“I believe she is,” replied Malcolm Bridges, rather smugly I thought.
“You believe Mr Bridges? Surely you asked her before letting her drive your car?”
“Yes I’m sure I did ask her and she said ‘yes’,” he replied. “She drives an old manual Morris Minor.”
The defence didn’t ask any questions.
Mrs Bridges was now called to the witness box.
Something didn't seem right. I wouldn't say it was impossible, but it seemed so unlikely that a woman of her age would be driving a sports car and especially in such a dangerous manner. The fact that her son was in the car as well made it seem even less likely. The prosecutor obviously thought so too because she began a series of searching questions about the events of the day. As I remember it the words used were something like this:
“Is it not a fact that the sports car you were driving is registered in the name of your son Malcolm Bridges who was a passenger in the car on that day?”
“Yes, that's right,” she replied.
“And was there a reason why you were driving and not him?”
“Err yes, he was feeling tired after some late nights, and asked me to drive him to Stratford.”
“That was very kind of you Mrs Bridges, but is it not also a fact that Malcolm Bridges has accrued ten penalty points in the past three years and is in imminent danger of losing his licence if he commits any more driving offences?”
She looked flustered. “I'm not sure,” she replied.
"He's never mentioned that to you?"
“And how many penalty points have you accumulated in the last three years, Mrs Bridges?”
“None,” she replied.
“Mrs Bridges, while you were overtaking the lorry did you think you had ample time to complete the manoeuvre and return to the left side of the road?”
“At first I did but then I wasn’t sure,” she replied.
“So what did you do?”
“It was too late to brake so I accelerated.”
“Wasn’t that a dangerous decision to make?”
“In retrospect I suppose it was,” she replied.
“Mrs Bridges, when you saw Miss Stow’s car driving off the road, didn’t it occur to you that she might have an accident and that you should return and render assistance?”
“No, I thought she would drive back onto the road,” she said.
“Did you look in your rear–view mirror to check if this happened?” asked the Prosecutor.
“Yes, err no, well I think so,” responded Mrs Bridges. She was getting increasingly flustered.
“So based on what you thought might have happened, you decided to keep driving?”
“Yes. Yes, alright, I panicked,” she said.
“You panicked because you thought your driving might have caused an accident?”
Mrs Bridges looked miserable. She nodded, then looking first at her solicitor and then towards the magistrates, she said “Your Worships, may I change my pleas?”
The Chairman said. “Yes you may Mrs Bridges but do you wish to take advice from your counsel first?”
Her solicitor stood up and said “Your Worships, may we have a brief adjournment while I consult with my client?”
“Yes you may Mr Hodges,” was the reply, and Mrs Bridges stepped out of the witness box and went to talk with her lawyer. After a few minutes she returned to the witness box.
“Mrs Bridges, I must remind you that you are still under oath. Do you still wish to change your pleas?”
“Yes, Your Worship, I wish to plead guilty to both charges and apologise for wasting the court’s time.”
“Very well, Mrs Bridges,” replied the Chairman and he asked the legal adviser to discuss the case with him and the other two magistrates.
After that he addressed Mrs Bridges.
“Mrs Bridges, you have pleaded guilty to careless driving and also failure to stop at the scene of an accident, both serious charges. It is the decision of this court that you be fined five hundred pounds, and disqualified from driving for eight months on the first charge. You will incur three penalty points on your licence for the second charge, and you will also be liable for the prosecution’s costs of £160.00. In view of your earlier pleas you will not receive a discount on the sentences. One further thing, Mrs Bridges, I'm sure you have heard of the term 'perjury'. It is an extremely serious offence and often incurs a custodial sentence. Please bear that in mind. Next case.”
I knew that no-one in the court really believed Mrs Bridges' story that she was driving the sports car at the time of the accident, but there was no evidence to prove that she wasn't driving. There was also no way of proving that she knew or didn’t know that an accident had occurred. In the British justice system, an accused person is deemed to be innocent until proven guilty, and so is always given the benefit of the doubt. In this instance, Mrs Bridges’ guilty pleas had to be taken at face value and dealt with accordingly.
As Mrs Bridges left the courtroom, she walked up to her son. They embraced and as he looked over her shoulder at me, there was a trace of a smile on his face, as he seemed to be saying something quietly in her ear.
Mary and I tried to slip quietly out of the courtroom, and into the foyer, but we weren't quick enough. The young reporter hurried up to me.
“Miss Stow, Jamie Barnes from the Stratford Advertiser, may I have a word?”
I couldn't very well ignore him, so I stopped.
“It is Miss Stow from the Imperial Shakespeare Company isn't it?”
I agreed that that's who I was.
“May I ask you for a comment about the case, Miss Stow?”
I might have been young, but I hadn't come down in the last shower.
“It was my first experience of seeing the British Justice system at work, and I'm sure the magistrates came to the right conclusion.”
“But did you believe that the mother was driving?” he persisted.
“That's what she said, and I have no reason not to believe her,” I replied. He could see that he wasn't going to get anything further from me, so he thanked me and walked away.
As I left the foyer, I heard the tap of heels on the stone floor as someone hurriedly came up behind me. I turned and saw it was Mrs Bridges.
“Miss Stow, may I have a private word with you?” she said looking at Mary. Mary took the hint and moved away. “I just wanted to say how sorry I am for what happened. I panicked, but that's no excuse. I have learned my lesson.”
The natural inclination when someone apologises is to say 'that's alright', but it wasn't alright, especially as by her actions she had ensured that her son still had his licence, and the next time, the outcome might be very different. She hadn't finished though.
“I really appreciate what you said in evidence today, and I was wondering if you had been put to any expense as a result of my actions?”
“Well, I did have to pay five hundred pounds excess on my car insurance, but that was my bad luck,” I said, and then wished I hadn't, because she rummaged in her handbag and produced a cheque book.
“Please allow me to give you a cheque to reimburse you,” she said, writing out a cheque. I took it because it seemed rude to refuse it, but I had a feeling I was doing the wrong thing. Did she think that I had not told the whole truth when giving evidence and was now paying me off? I remembered what the magistrate had said about perjury. I showed the cheque to Mary and said “I think that the best thing to do is see the constable who took my statement and tell him exactly what had just happened.”
“I think that's a wise move,” agreed Mary.
I waited until Mrs Bridges and her son had left, in the red sports car as it happened, but with him definitely driving this time. He very nearly spun the wheels as he drove off; then I walked back into the court building to look for Constable Harrison, and met him just as he was leaving.
“Constable Harrison, could you spare me a minute please?”
“Certainly Miss Stow,” he replied. “And don't worry about this morning. We can't win them all.”
“Something just happened that concerns me. Mrs Bridges came up to me, apologised, then thanked me for the evidence I gave and asked me if I had incurred expenses. When I told her about the five hundred pounds excess on my insurance, she wrote out a cheque and gave it to me. Here it is.” I held it out to him.
He looked serious. “You think she was suggesting that you perjured yourself?”
“Well she didn't suggest anything, but I'm just thinking now how it looks, especially after what the magistrate had to say about perjury. I just wish I hadn't taken it.”
“Well, you've done the right thing in bringing it to our attention. I'm sorry, but I'll have to get you to write out a statement about what just happened. Can you come down to the station now?”
Mary drove me down to the police station and I did as he requested.
“What happens next?” I asked.
“I will bring this to the attention of the magistrates who heard the case. I'll photocopy the cheque and get you to confirm it’s an accurate copy. You can have it back, but don't cash it, at least for now.”
I felt very relieved when I left the police station. For once, it seemed that I had done something right. The result of this little episode was another telephone call from Constable Harrison's sergeant.
“Miss Stow, the matter of the cheque had been brought to the attention of the magistrates, and it is their advice that you return it to Mrs Bridges by registered mail, telling her that you cannot accept it.”
I took their advice, albeit reluctantly. I was trying to save money for my surgery and five hundred pounds was a reasonable sum of money, but it seems I just had to write it off to experience. However, some time later I did receive good news from my insurance company. It seemed that since Mrs Bridges had accepted liability by pleading guilty in court, they would claim all the costs of my claim from Mrs Bridges’ insurance company, and I would not be liable to pay the excess after all.
The following week, a short article appeared in the 'Advertiser'. Under the heading “Rising Star in Car Accident”, the text read as follows:
“Rising Imperial Shakespeare Company star Harriet Stow appeared as a witness in the Stratford Magistrates' Court last week in a case where she was forced to drive off the Warwick to Stratford road in order to avoid a head-on collision with a sports car driven by Mrs Helen Bridges, 48, of Dove Street, Warwick. Miss Stow, 19, sustained a broken arm and concussion when her car hit a tree. Currently appearing in the ISC production of Shakespeare's 'Twelfth Night', in the classic tradition of 'the show must go on', Miss Stow performed the role of Viola with her arm in a sling for the first two weeks.
Mrs Bridges pleaded guilty to careless driving and failing to stop at the scene of an accident. She was fined £500, banned from driving for eight months and incurred 3 penalty points.”
I confess that I thought it was a curious article since it concentrated more on me than the actual case. Still, there's a saying that 'all publicity is good publicity', although for the life of me I can't understand why any story involving an actor or actress seems to be newsworthy. I was glad that I had made the ISC Administration aware of what had happened.
That should have been the end of the matter, but alas it was not to be. About three months later, another short article appeared in the 'Advertiser', under the heading “Man Killed in Head-on Crash”.
“Malcolm Bridges, of Stuart Street, Warwick, died yesterday when his sports car collided head-on with a lorry while he was overtaking another vehicle on the Warwick to Stratford road. Mr Bridges was alone in the car at the time. The lorry driver was not injured. The incident was similar to one that occurred three months ago on the same stretch of road, when his car, this time driven by his mother, nearly collided head-on with another car driven by Miss Harriet Stow an actress with the ISC, while overtaking a lorry. Miss Stow suffered a broken arm in the incident.”
I felt very sorry for Helen Bridges. I couldn't help wondering that if she’d refused to accept responsibility for what had happened, then her son might have been banned from driving, and still be alive. Alas, it seemed this was a classic case of a spoilt child who manipulated his mother in every way possible, and it had come to the worst possible end for them both. I was just glad no-one else suffered in the latest accident.
To be continued.
I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Louise Anne in proofreading the text and giving me a great deal of useful advice about modern-day Britain to incorporate in the story.
As an additional acknowledgement, this chapter has been heavily revised after I received advice from a retired magistrates’ court legal adviser who wishes to remain anonymous. A number of readers’ comments refer to the fact that no witnesses are called when someone charged pleads guilty, and so this has now been changed.
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