Are you going to hell when you die?
Q: Are you going to hell when you die, Mr Loophole?
A: I don’t like awake worrying. I do lie awake thinking of legal points, though.
Sell: Nick Freeman has become Britain’s most notorious solicitor for acquitting his clients of dangerous motoring offences on absurd technicalities. But with grieving victims and road safety campaigns furious with his conduct, is it him, or the system, that’s to blame?
Nick Freeman, the motoring offence solicitor, doesn’t much care for the spirit of the law. Take, for example, the time he represented a millionaire drunk driver, accused of causing a lorry to swerve and smash head-on into a car carrying a young family of five. His client refused to be breathalysed, so the police officer at the scene, apparently giving him a second chance, asked him to instead provide a blood sample. It was positive.
But when Freeman later sifted through the prosecution papers, he spotted a monumental blunder, and pounced: his man, he realised, should have been immediately charged with “failing to provide” the second he didn’t blow into the machine. He should not have been asked to give another type of sample. A simple procedural error, maybe, but it meant the blood results became inadmissible, and, without any breathalyser readings, there was no submitable evidence, so his client walked free.
The 30-year-old motorist in the other car, however, never walked again.
Matt Thomson broke his neck, was left blinded in one eye and is now brain damaged to the extent he suffers short-term memory loss and has personality changes. His then one-year-old daughter, meanwhile, stopped breathing after the collision and had to be resuscitated and airlifted to hospital.
“Did he deserve to be acquitted?” asks Freeman softly, while talking to Esquire from his office in central Manchester. “From the legal perspective, of course he did, but from a complainant situation, the family were sold woefully short.
“It was horrendous.”
Meet Mr Loophole: the staffy-loving legal antihero who has to become, undoubtedly, Britain’s most famous — and notorious — solicitor. Famed for his ability to get his banged-to-rights clients acquitted on bizarre technicalities, his clients have included Sir Alex Ferguson (acquitted of driving on the hard shoulder because he needed the loo), David Beckham (who, Freeman argued, simply <had> to drive his Ferrari at 76mph in a 50 zone to get away from a photographer) and Ronnie O’Sullivan (let off because he was too depressed to provide a urine sample). And that’s just the beginning, a more exhaustive list reads like a who’s who of knights, sporting heroes and household names, including Colin Montgomerie, Andrew Flintoff, Jimmy Carr, Wayne Rooney, Jeremy Clarkson, Matthew Vaughn, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Danny Welbeck and even Katie Price. It’s endless.
Of course, he’s not the first lawyer to win a case on a procedural error. He is, though, the first to make a whole career of it. While road traffic lawyers typically potter into the dock and meekly argue that their man deserves a lighter sentence, Nick Freeman instead swaggers in and calmly points out to the judge that the whole case is ridiculous.
It’s a technique grounded in his belief that the legal system does not concern itself with justice, only the law, meaning he doesn’t sully himself with apparent pretentions of fairness, karma or acting for the greater good.
“Law and justice are not the same thing,” he explains. “You can have a client who is, in every aspect, guilty, but who has a lawyer who knows his stuff and acquits him because there has been a significant defect in procedure. If there was justice, that person would be locked away.”
All of which means he has no qualms about (as he admits in his autobiography, <The Art of the Loophole> (Coronet)) taking advantage of so-called technicalities “buried in the gloomiest corners of the statue book”. Take, for instance, the time he got Jimmy Carr acquitted of using his iPhone at the wheel. He argued that a mobile is defined as an “interactive device”, something that wasn’t applicable to his client because he was only using it to record a gag he’d just come up with (a dictaphone not being interactive, apparently). When EastEnders actor Steve McFadden, who plays Phil Mitchell, was charged for swigging the equivalent of nine double vodkas before driving, Freeman insisted he didn’t realise he was drunk because he had a “remarkable capacity” to consume alcohol. He had six months taken off his ban.
He prides himself on his attention to detail and tactics. He’s read the speed camera manual front-to-back, while it’s standard protocol to save an argument that could cause an acquittal until the last possible moment, leaving bemused prosecution lawyers scrambling around to fight back (“let the firework smolder” he writes, wryly, in his book). There are other quirks, too: he prefers not meet his clients if he can help it (they rant on, he thinks); he’ll show magistrates videos of the accused downing whole bottles of alcohol to prove there’s no ill-effect; and he regularly drives up and down sections of the roads featured in his cases, over and over again, to help build up his defence.
His most daring escapes, though, involve arguing that his clients weren’t even in the car. It’s not as silly as it first sounds: often there is a long wait between the incident and the court date. Ask a police witness, on the spot in court, to provide a description and he could struggle — particularly if the defendant isn’t present (they don't actually have to be, another loophole Freeman personally discovered).
He’s a mightily impressive interviewee, too. He unflappably rattles off straight answers to tough questions, swatting away arguments while meticulously underlining each point with a case study. He’s disarmingly calm, modest and charming, with his clients and police witnesses more often “chaps” and “coppers”. And he even proves what a thoroughly nice human being he is by explaining that he was only late for our interview because his two-year-old staffie, who he takes everywhere with him (even to court) has kennel cough — not that he’d ever put his beloved George through the indignity of kennels, mind, he’s perplexed as to how he contracted the virus.
Where did it come from then, this ability, to use a sporting phrase, to enjoy winning ugly? He decided to become a solicitor aged just seven, when his father promised him he could earn £4,000 a year (“unimaginable wealth”) by arguing for a living. After being entered into an advocacy competition years later — he won, naturally — he decided to take a job as a prosecutor for Greater Manchester Police in 1981. As a junior lawyer, he was handed the dregs of jobs, which usually meant road traffic cases. His epiphany came when a seasoned defence lawyer had his case thrown out because he had failed to produce calibration checks for the breathalyser.
He was furious, but saw the opportunity. In 1983, he quit his job to become a defence solicitor at a big firm, but before he left, he went to the police library and dug out every textbook he could find on the subject, scribbling down the notable cases. In the big grey area of motoring offences, a lawyer who knew his stuff, he reasoned, could be invisible. He eventually started his own company, and within a year Messrs Ferguson and Beckham came calling. It’s a moment he recalls well.
“I remember going into court with David Beckham and I have never experienced anything like it,” he says. “This was in a magistrates but it was madness. People have no idea what it is like unless you are in this situation. Normal rules of engagement go out of the window. Your back is to the audience; the adrenaline is pumping. You can’t sneak into court with him. And you know it’s going to have massive press attention the pressure is on you. It’s acute, intense pressure.”
There is, of course, a dark side to all this. Road traffic offences may well be a money-spinner to Mr Loophole, but they are also a major killer in Britain. People die when others speed, drink or drive dangerously. In 2012, nearly 10,000 people were hurt, and 280 killed, because of drink driving. On average, around 400 deaths a year are the result of breaking the speed limit. Freeman will regularly acquit those involved in accidents where people die. He’s done three, in fact, in the last three months.
But he must, surely, see the hypocrisy in all this. He must understand why victims and road safety campaigners are so furious. He argues the law is an ass, but then profits from its failings. He says there are no loopholes, only the law, but he trademarked the term Mr Loophole. He’s says it’s a fallacy that courts care about justice, but forgets the name of the most senior place he practices — the Royal Courts of Justice.
“Many victims we work with say they feel let down by the justice system,” says Dave Nichols, a spokesman for road safety charity Brake. “We would like to see more specialised police officers, who are a vital tool in the fight against reckless driving. They have the experience and knowledge to ensure potential offenders are arrested correctly, charged appropriately and do not reoffend.”
But Freeman is defiant.
“Democratically elected governments create laws,” he says, back on his well rehearsed defence again. “If someone is drinking, over the limit, the breathalyser is working and they’re driving, should they be acquitted, for example, because they were suffering from such depression at the time that they didn’t understand what would happen if they didn’t blow into the machine? I would say they should be convicted. But the law says they need to understand the consequences.
“I understand people’s outrage. But why have the laws if you don’t like them? Partition parliament to get them changed.”
Does he think that, when he dies, he’ll be judged by God?
“I hope I’ll be judged,” he argues. “We’re lawyers, we have a duty. If the system is wrong, the system should be changed. I certainly don’t lie awake at night troubled by the fact I have done something wrong. I do lie awake at night thinking of legal points, though.”
After the “failing to provide” incident, the family of the victim, now in a wheelchair, asked to meet him, along with a documentary crew. They were, understandably, livid. What caused so much bitterness, though, was that the case was delayed from going to court numerous times. Had Freeman revealed his hand earlier, the charges could have been adapted to negate his defence. It was, they thought, an underhand trick.
How did he feel?
“I felt upset when I met them, but I didn’t in any way feel guilty. I wanted to explain how the system works and try to express my sympathy. I owed them that. I did my bit but the police didn’t do theirs. They have the back-up of professional lawyers. Things should be spotted, but often they’re not.”
No regrets then?
“You could say, if I noticed this error, why didn’t I shout it out from the rooftops and make sure he was convicted?
“I would have been struck off.”
Nick’s book <The Art of the Loophole (Coronet)> is out now. For more on his campaign supporting the staffordshire bull terrier, visit savethestaffy.co.uk
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