Some Books: Henry Cecil’s ‘Independent Witness’

Since 2014, when I went in search of books I had once read and re-read enthusiastically from Didsbury Library, I began an occasional series about re-discovering such books after something like thirty years. I am curious about whether I still find them appealing, and if this is for more than nostalgia for the times they are associated with.
I’m assuming it was after I’d started directing my efforts at a Law Degree and a career in the Law to follow that I started reading Henry Cecil from my local library.
Henry Cecil was the pen-name of Henry Cecil Leon, a County Court judge who, between 1951 and 1977 (posthumously), was a successful novelist, mostly of comic tales with a legal background, for which he drew upon his own experiences. His first big success, Brothers in Law, about his time in training, was converted into a BBC sitcom with Richard Briers in the main role.
Cecil was a prolific writer, well-represented in Didsbury, and I must have read between two-thirds and three-quarters of his output, though the last few books were not up to the general standard of his work. There are probably a dozen or so that I would remember on re-reading but only one that I’ve kept in memory all these years. Recently, I was reminded of it and, finding a paperback copy available cheap on eBay, laid hands on it to read again.
Independent Witness (published in 1963 and first read probably in 1973) had a profound effect upon me at the time of reading it, and taught me lessons that I’ve observed all my life since. Though it contains Cecil’s usual gentle comedy, ultimately the story is serious, one might almost say deadly serious, and it is that seriousness that impressed itself upon me.
The set-up is simple. A car arrives at a road junction and stops at the Halt sign. Seeing no traffic, it starts across the junction. A motor cyclist tears round a blind bend and hits the car. The cyclist is thrown over the car’s roof and suffers serious injuries. The motorist drives off, leaving half a dozen or more independent witnesses behind.
MP Michael Barnes comes forward a couple of days later to admit to the accident, and is charged with dangerous driving. His wife is suffering from an extremely difficult pregnancy, hence his rush to get home to her, she having collapsed. There are some mental issues involved, and she needs to be kept free of agitation.
At first, the case, which is to be heard at the Old Bailey, in front of Mr Justice Grampion, who is notorious for his lacerating comments about drivers and levying maximum sentences. Against Barnes are these eight or nine independent witnesses. They do not know either the accused or the victim, they have no axe to grind, they are presumed to give wholly objective and truthful evidence because they have no stake whatsoever in the verdict. In short, they are Independent.
Anthony Wimbledon, Michael’s Solicitor, engages a QC named Oliphant to conduct the defence. However, Michael’s journalist friend Andrew Mortlake, employs a dirty, underhand, unethical trick (worthy of the legal profession, that man) gets Grampion out of the way by engineering a ‘casual’ bumping into the Judge, during which he and Michael exchange derogatory words about Grampion, unaware (well, Michael is) that it is the very man who’s about to try the MP.
Grampion, who may be down on drivers, is nevertheless scrupulously fair and offers the Defence the chance to request he stand down which, amidst a paean from all sides to the Judge’s ethical standards and ability to exclude personal considerations, Oliphant jumps at.
I was actually quite disappointed at that twist. It wasn’t the underhand nature of the trick, but it came over as a cheat on the reader. Cecil goes to great lengths to set Grampion up as a fearsome threat, a dangerous arbiter, an obstacle to Michael’s hopes of acquittal, and then he’s removed before he can say a judicial word, in far too easy a manner.
All of this is the set-up, the context for the purpose of the book, which is Oliphant’s cross-examination of the witnesses. This is why we’re here, authorially, and this is why I’m here forty-odd years on from first reading the book.
Oliphant can’t attack each or any one of the witnesses. That would invite disaster, both in the hardening of their testimony, and in the eyes of the Judge, who will respond harshly to harsh conduct to the witnesses.
What Cecil draws out though, through the careful, patient, controlled cross-examination by Oliphant, is that though the testimony each witness offers is honest, and given in a sense of public duty, not one of them can be relied upon. And each is undermined, their reliability in the eyes of the Jury gently demolished without their characters being in any way traduced.
Because not every independent witness is truly independent. Some have thoughts and opinions that are brought out by prejudice against the Defendant. Some are too independent, people going about their business, their concerns, who did not see what actually happened but genuinely believe in their testimony, though it’s shaped by talking afterwards with others, and constructing a narrative of what they think must have happened.
Each of the witnesses gives the same story: the car raced across the junction at a mad speed, without stopping for the Halt sign (ancient Road Traffic laws, you stop at a Halt sign, no matter how clear everything may be) and that the cyclist was driving at a moderate speed. We know that isn’t true, having ‘seen’ the accident for ourselves on page 1. But these witnesses are adamant, and honest, in describing it diifferent.
The storyis an object lesson in objectivity, especially for one who was working towards making his career in the law around which this revolved. I was completely absorbed in the forensic nature of the questioning, a technique of constantly returning to the actual scene, to what the witness actually saw, and confronting them with the logical inconsistencies between what they thought and what was actually possible, until the honest admitted their mistake, and those who had invested themselves too deeply in what they believed they’d seen blustered too much in defence of their testimony to remain credible.
But the point I took away was that the witnesses were honest, and said what they believed they had seen. Oliphant’s point, made patiently and gently, aimed at getting the idea into the juror’s heads rather than getting the witness to recant (one does, but in an admirably tough-minded piece of plotting, the Prosecution subjects her recantation to exactly the same doubts Oliphant is raising).The actual point is that none of them had seen the actual incident. Each had been thinking about their various preoccupations, had looked up at the sound of the collision, had talked to one another and had retrospectively constructed a version of what they hadn’t seen to fit their reaction to the injury to the unprotected cyclist and the driver’s rapid departure from the scene.
There’s a substantial twist near the end. The Prosecution rests. All Michael Barnes has to do is to go into the witness box, give straightforward testimony, and his acquittal is assured. But Michael refuses. Oliphant gets round it admirably in his closing speech. The Defendant is not obliged to give evidence, in fact until sixty years previously (then) he wasn’t even allowed to. Michael Barnes is a public figure. He is entitled to a verdict that he can point to and say there was no credible evidence, I did not even need to answer it.
Michael is acquitted, even though his legal advisors more or less assume he’s lied to them throughout and did commit the crime: what else can you think? All Oliphant’s patient work in undermining the witnesses and they were right all along. But here comes the double-twist: Michael was not driving the car. It was Sheila. And he’s taken the rap, risked his whole future, to protect her. He just couldn’t lie on oath and say he was the driver.
Of course, the ultimate irony is that every single witness could have been shot down as unreliable on the most basic of points: they all said the car was driven by a man!
The concept and the story still holds, though I am less enamoured of some of the diversions Cecil includes to pad the book out. One witness is Cecil’s recurring character Colonel Brain, a garrulous, rambling, beer-drinking idiot who I may have found funny once but who now is an intolerable nuisance. Worse however is the eighty year old Mrs Benson, obsessed with getting her licence back so she can drive again and getting muddled up between her testimony and her application to have her licence restored, for pages at length. If your attention doesn’t wander through this bit, you should have yourself checked for rigor mortis.
But to come back to why I remember this book out of all the Henry Cecil’s I enthusiastically read, it is down to that central point. Be observant. Be objective. Be accurate with yourself. Separate what you actually see and hear from what you think might explain it. Be clinical. It is vitally important that you bear true witness to things. That was the lesson I took away, and I adhere to it still, to the best of my ability. Stick to the facts, man. And retain this book.