Supporting Someone Through the Legal System

From the moment someone is arrested, until the end of someone’s time “on tag”, or the expiry of their ASBO (which can last a life time), and beyond, our comrades facing the wrath of the “justice” system will require support in different ways. Often we are supportive at times of visible tension, such as when someone is in the hands of the enemy – when they have been arrested, or remanded – but during the other times, such as when people are on bail, they are often forgotten and left to deal with stressful situations on their own.

This leaflet is a brief overview of some of the lessons that people involved in Bristol Anarchist Black Cross and Bristol Defendant Solidarity have through supporting people facing charges. It is not meant to be an exhaustive list, and of course there is no “one size fits all” solution to solidarity. Individual’s needs change, and you never know how different parts of the process will trigger unforeseen reactions, depending on many external factors. Different stages of the legal process require different responses but at all times the defendants needs must be paramount and dealt with sensitively and confidentially.

From Arrest to Bail

BDS has published a range of bust cards and legal flyers that are often given out on demos. If you are organising something, get in touch with them, contact details on reverse, or download the bust card and information from the website.

When someone has been released from custody, they may well have to answer bail, and have bail restrictions. A key thing to remember at this stage is to keep all documentation the police have given them safe, and make sure they are clear of the next dates action is required. Sometimes solicitors will also need a reminder, especially if they are unlucky enough to have ended up with a duty solicitor.

Bail to Court

The courts deliberately try to confuse people by drowning them in “legalese” and large evidence bundles. It is common that after a long period of silence, defendants will be suddenly given a large amount of information relating to their trial to process and comment on in a very short time frame. Also, this may well be with very little support from their solicitor. Helping someone read and talk through their evidence bundle can be very helpful. Remember, you are privy to confidential information. Be a sounding board, and help them prepare questions they may have for their solicitor. Take them tea and cake and encourage regular breaks during a long session looking at legal documents, it can be extremely triggering and disempowering. Even if you are fairly used to reading verbose academic texts, evidence bundles can be a nightmare to process effectively. Make sure the defendant is working at a pace they feel comfortable with and is leading the sessions. If a solicitor is present make sure they are listening to the defendant and responding to their concerns. Do not let your ego (or the solicitors) and personal experiences dominate. This is about their trial – even specific legal precedents only go so far in connection to a case, so do not hold out too much hope in them.

It is helpful to try and brainstorm all the different aspects of a person’s case. Make a time line, and try to recruit people early on to fill specific roles. Some examples to consider are:

  • fund-raising
  • “outreach” (media, website/campaign, contacting local groups if appropriate)
  • legal support during trial (responding to the day’s proceedings and any evidence presented, making sense of the prosecution/judges’ comments.)
  • logistics (transport to court for the defendant and people attending court, accommodation, food, etc)

It is not unheard of for the police to raid people’s homes whilst they are on bail. You might want to check that the defendant feels OK about what they have in their home (do they want their computer to be backed up, or their post to be redirected for a while? What precautions should be taken if they are raided?)

It is increasingly difficult to get legal aid, and with the current political climate it can be extremely stressful responding to the paperwork required to secure, and keep, legal aid. Offers to help collate this information can be helpful.

Make time to chat to your friend in a non-time pressured way. No one likes to feel like a “project”. It can be hard to talk about sensitive issues on demand. Also make sure the defendant knows that there are support groups out there. Sometimes talking to people outside your immediate friendship group can be helpful, especially if several people are connected through a trial.

Bail restrictions are designed to impede, intimidate, and annoy. If possible, encourage solicitors to challenge them. Look at them on a case by case basis and consider how they will make the defendant feel, and how they can be practically overcome. The defendant may feel like a burden, or also be frustrated at the limits that bail restrictions put on their ability to organise and communicate. They may be prohibited from talking to close friends, or going to certain places. Feeling like you are under surveillance for an extended period of time can be psychologically challenging so keep checking in with them.

The amount of media coverage a case gets varies hugely, as do the responses of defendants to it; always check in with your comrade about how they are feeling, and remind them that nothing is set in stone. Never talk on behalf of your comrade unless you have express permission, whether it’s to some journo, or posting information about their case online.

Court

The defendant will have many court appearances during their case. These are normally set around the whim of the judge, their holiday schedule and other such factors. The needs of the defendant are unsurprisingly rarely taken into account, but do try to find out from your friend if there are any particular times they want to avoid. Are there any medical needs? Family issues? Bring this up with their solicitor, and be hard line in getting the solicitor to raise it in court. Normally court dates can only be changed when the court is in session.

Trials vary hugely in length. External factors such as the commitments of the jury, the weather, other cases the judge may be presiding over, can all have a bearing on the length of time. The defendant will need somewhere secure to stay. Try to think about recruiting people who are not going to be exhausted from attending court every day to help with logistics. The courts will no doubt drag up or distort personal information that is deliberately to make the defendant feel awkward. Try to reassure them, and think of ways to minimise the damage this can cause.

If anyone is considering doing court support make sure you give them a briefing. Things to consider:

  • what they have in their bag. (they will get searched and there are many items you are not allowed in court.)
  • what they are wearing.
  • materials to either document key points, or a book if they are just there for moral support!
  • how can you use them to get maximum information? (for “political” cases there are often police from different branches, such as NETCU, or journalists lurking in the gallery without declaring their interest; they are monitoring the defendants, pay attention!).
  • supporting the defendants family or close friends if they are particularly upset.
  • talking to the solicitor and making notes.
    Remind people that courts are frustrating, tedious places – but this isn’t about them. Making obvious comments to the person next to you, or expressing your views on the prison system from the public gallery will not help your friend. The judge and the jury notice many things, so even if you think you are being subtle, keep quiet!

Sometimes things come up like unexpected media interest, or new evidence. Try to build in mechanisms in your support campaign to create space to deal with these issues. Court can be exhausting and unhealthy, so also try to get the defendant to make time for some exercise, or whatever they find helps them to relax afterwards.

As the date for the trial draws closer, do not scaremonger, but also prepare people for the worst. Do they know what they can take with them if they are remanded? Do they have any medical needs? Have they communicated with their family/friends? Remember, prisons are not secure places! So try to go through what the defendant might want to communicate to people outside if they are sent down, or any personal business that needs attending. How should people respond – if at all – to issues that may come up in the media or other spaces relating to their case once it has finished.

Encourage other friends of the defendant to be realistic about what they can offer in terms of support. It could be a long haul. Is everyone in the trial getting the solidarity that they need, and also remind people of support services outside of their immediate networks.

Contacts

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