Richard Hoyes keeps on the right side of the law

13th October 2000 at 01:00
My first Mini was bright yellow. On the back windscreen it had a sticker that said, "You've just been Mini'd!", and nipping in front of people and dodging into parking spaces was one of the delights of my youth.

I remember being pulled over by the police the day after I'd bought it, and a rather pompous officer warning me about the state of the sills. They were "an infringement of the legal requirement of the law", he said, pointing to the rust. Back down the road, part of the sub-frame had come adrift.

"Tautological, officer," part of me wanted to quip, but I wisely repressed it. Because one of the first requirements about knowing about words, knowing for example that tautology as in "the legal requirement of the law" is unnecessary repetition, is knowing when to use words and when to stay shtoom.

"I'm dreadfully sorry officer," I said and used the creep's register of language that the occasion demanded. A few years, a bit of spot-welding and a re-spray later, the same bright yellow Mini was involved in an incident. It happened when I nipped out of a side road and into a line of slowly moving traffic. I upset a middle-aged man on his new (and to be honest, rather too big for him) motorbike. He pulled up and then toppled over. And blamed me. Then he burst into tears.

Of course an officer quickly appeared from nowhere (don't they always?), along with several witnesses. There had been no collision. At issue was the connection, if any, between my nipping out and his falling off. In the end, the case of the yellow Mini versus the middle-aged man on his oversized Harley-Davidson never came to court. The dreaded Notice of Intended Prosecution never arrived.

And the reason was, I am sure, that I mentioned one thing on my statement to the police that I nearly didn't mention. The fact that the man said, "Oh, not again!" (it turned out it was the second time that day he'd toppled off) and cried. "Cried?" said the offcer taking down my statement. "How do you mean, cried? Do you mean he was upset?" "No. Cried," I insisted.

"Cried? How do you mean, cried? Cried out?" "Cried. Like a baby."

So the word "cried" stayed in my statement and I'm glad it did.

There ought to be a course somewhere that gives guidance on making statements - that points out that you need to report not only what is said but also the way that it's said. It might give a vital clue to someone's character, attitude or psychological condition. And the course would acknowledge how difficult it is to do this when somebody in authority is writing it down.

I thought all this while listening to a talk given to sixth-formers by two lecturers from the University of East London. They were talking about courses in education and linguistics and, among other things, dealt with how language is used in court (see Friday, October 6). They showed a video in which a barrister asked questions in such a way that they became accusations. If you're ever in court, I told my students - in whatever capacity, defendant, witness or victim - you've learned something today. There ought to be a course on behaviour in court. Maybe the University of East London could run one and franchise it. I'd buy it.

I used to take pupils to watch a magistrates' court as part of a communications course. At one session somebody in the public gallery told me: "It's criminal what you're doing. You're teaching them how to get off." No, I was helping them get a fair deal.

Yes, let's have a course. It would include tips such as "don't be clever-clever with the officer" (even if he does say the same word twice). Or How to Make a Statement. And whether you're the Mini driver or the man on his new motorbike, whichever side of the law you're on, you still deserve a fair sentence. In more ways than one.

Richard Hoyes teaches at Farnham College, Surrey. Email:

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