From the bizarre to the outright wicked, this retired criminal barrister saw it all in Portsmouth during his 53-year career
Criminal barrister Stephen Parish saw all aspects of life during his distinguished 53-year career.
The 75-year-old was a mainstay in courts across the region for much of his career but has now decided to hang up his wig and gown after a career spanning six decades – during which time he witnessed incredible changes in the criminal justice system.
Mr Parish’s final act of courtroom drama was to help mete out justice to Southsea rapist Israel Olabode, who was sent to jail for 18 years at Portsmouth Crown Court after a horrific knifepoint attack.
‘It was a satisfying end to my career,’ the former advocate admitted. ‘It was a very strong case. The evidence was overwhelming.’
The sentencing of such cases is one of the areas where the criminal justice system has improved beyond all recognition from the time Mr Parish started out in law during the late 1960s. ‘Sentences these days are much more severe in sex cases,’ he said. ‘Now it is commonplace to get 17 years or more for a rape – look at Olabode.
‘But back in the 1970s you would normally get five or six years for a rape. Anything more than 10 years was exceptional. Now you are looking at more than double that in very serious cases.’
He added: ‘Sex cases now make up a third of cases in court whereas before (in the 1970s/80s) it was much lower.’
But while there was overwhelming evidence of guilt in the Olabode case, irrefutable evidence does not always mean someone will be found guilty – as Mr Parish has witnessed on occasions throughout his career. ‘It is frustrating when you prosecute a case and deep down you know they are guilty but the verdict comes back not guilty, which is almost perverse,’ he said.
However, overall, the barrister believes the system is the best we have. He said: ‘On the whole juries get it right most of the time and if they acquit someone (who is probably guilty) there is normally a good reason why. The jury system is the best. It has been going since medieval times.
‘There is a case for not having juries in complicated business fraud cases. They are so complicated that it is very difficult for a barrister let alone a layperson to understand the intricacies of highly technical business law. In such cases having a judge supported by assessors would make sense.’
Mr Parish’s vast experience has seen him take on all manner of roles inside the courtroom – with him in the relatively unusual position of having prosecuted, defended and sitting as a recorder; a barrister acting as a part-time judge.
So what side of the fence did he prefer to be on in court? ‘A barrister generally has a leaning towards one side or another – some are natural defenders whereas others are more natural prosecutors.
‘I prefer prosecuting because you get to construct a case rather than be on the side of just knocking it down.
‘I enjoyed being a recorder but it was only for six weeks a year. I don’t think I could have done it all of the time. My boredom threshold was too low and I would have been frustrated very quickly – that’s why I never applied to become a judge.
‘You are essentially just a spectator or a referee and it’s not until the end of the case that you get involved by doing the summing up whereas barristers are in the cut and thrust of a case.’
Mr Parish also believes the role of a judge has changed since he started out. He said: ‘They used to be so fierce and were more biased towards the prosecution. Now judges are less interventionist.
‘They let counsel get away things they never would have let them get away with in the past.’
When asked whether this could have a detrimental impact on justice, Mr Parish accepts it could.
The barrister reveals he always had a passion for law and after studying the subject at the University of Exeter before going to Bar and joining the Bar in 1966. He then joined 6 Kings Bench Walk in Temple as a pupil before moving to 2 King’s Bench Walk where he practised for 46 years until 2013 when he joined 3PB Barristers until he retired in April this year.
Along the way, there is little Mr Parish has not seen with him recalling a number of memorable cases.
One particularly sinister case involved a doctor, Robert Wells, who worked for the police examining victims, but who also abused his position of trust as a GP. He was found guilty in 2004 at Winchester Crown Court of two counts of rape, three counts of indecent assault and making an indecent image of an 11-year-old girl.
He was also found guilty of drugging and indecently assaulting an 11-year-old girl and administering drugs to her five-year-old sister – landing him a 15-year jail sentence.
Mr Parish said Wells would video the disturbing acts where he would abuse his victims on a specially crafted couch called ‘Satan's Pillow’ – allowing him to easily violate his victims.
Mr Parish said: ‘Wells claimed he used to lie on it because he had a bad back so I made him give a demonstration in court – but he couldn’t do it. It was very damaging to his case. It was satisfying to see justice.’
Mr Parish has also been able to overturn convictions at the Court of Appeal – something far from easy to do. ‘I lost an arson case in the 1970s where a man had been incriminated by the two other defendants. But I believed the man had a very good alibi proving he was at home.
‘But you can’t just overturn a conviction because you think the jury got the wrong decision. I really believed he was innocent and the evidence pointed strongly to his innocence. In the end I was able to persuade the Court of Appeal and his conviction was quashed.’
During his work as a recorder between 1987 and 2016, Mr Parish offered insight on what it was like to be in such a position of responsibility where an individual’s freedom is held in your hands. ‘You try to combine firmness with mercy,’ he said.
‘In the past you sentenced by feel but now there are strong guidelines with the role of a judge very regulated. Obviously some judges or recorders are more lenient than others but the case can always be looked at by the Court of Appeal if the sentence is not deemed to be within the guidelines.’
The most important thing about the role though is being decisive. Mr Parish explained: ‘The worst judges are not the toughest, they are the ones who cannot make up their minds.’
Mr Parish admits the job can be demanding and not everyone can handle the stressful nature. But despite being in the firing line, especially when performing as a prosecutor who is the orchestrator of sending people to prison, the barrister can only recall one occasion when he felt threatened.
He said: ‘I have been insulted in court but I regard that as a compliment. The only time I ever really felt in danger was in 1982 outside Portsmouth Crown Court after I had been sitting as a prospective assistant recorder in a case where the judge sentenced the man to two and a half years in jail.
‘Outside court a van, with the defendant’s brother, suddenly came driving straight at me and mounted the pavement before swerving away. I felt aggrieved especially as I had not even sentenced his brother. The van driver ended up getting seven days in prison for dangerous driving.’
THINGS have changed in the criminal justice system since Stephen Parish started out in his law career during the late 1960s.
Prior to 1972, stretching back to the medieval ages, there was the assize system where High Court judges travelled out of London across the country on circuits for cases.
This was replaced by the crown court system which made things more localised and precipitated chambers in local areas. ‘This has made things better – with the volume of crime you couldn’t have got it all done with the old system,’ Mr Parish said.
But one aspect of court that has remained the same – and should continue to do so, according to the barrister, is the wearing of wigs and gowns. ‘They make you seem invisible and as if you are playing a role,’ Mr Parish said.
‘It is nothing personal – it is the man or woman in the wig and gown (who is interrogating), which is important.
‘It is old fashioned but that doesn’t make it wrong. It is something people buy into with recent studies showing that people want to keep the wig and gown for criminal cases.’