Focus: London riots - Riot angles
5 September 2011 | By Margaret Taylor
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City law firms were left untouched by last month’s riots. But for lawyers in Tottenham and Croydon, it was quite a different story
When EBR Attridge managing partner Vince Reveglia jetted off at the beginning of August for two weeks in the Greek sun, the last thing he expected was to be returning three days later to deal with a fire-bombed office. But when riots broke out in North London, quickly spreading across the capital and into other major English cities, that is exactly what he found himself doing.
Criminal specialists EBR Attridge has five offices across London, with the one on Tottenham High Road in the London Borough of Haringey serving as Reveglia’s base. As he was settling into his summer break with his wife and three children, Reveglia had no idea what was taking place on his doorstep, but he was not in the dark for long.
“I started receiving text messages on the Saturday night to say it was all kicking off in Tottenham - I wasn’t even aware of the shooting [of Mark Duggan, whose shooting by police triggered a protest that is believed to have led to the riots] because I was abroad at the time,” he recalls. “Then I received a photo message of a police car burning just outside our office. At that point I started to worry. I suspected we were probably going to get some damage, but the most I was expecting was the windows to be kicked in.”
It was some time before the true extent of the damage became clear. “I was getting different reports from local people. Some said the office had gone up in flames, but others said it was the William Hill next door,” relates Reveglia. “Eventually I got a message with a photo of our office burning and I knew I had to come back.”
What he discovered on his return was that the branch, which is housed above a florist with street-level offices on either side, was almost completely destroyed. The office on one side of the florist was totally burnt out, while on the other side the windows had been smashed. The rest of the building had smoke damage, but all client files, despite being covered in soot, were salvageable.
The outcome for the Croydon branch of GT Stewart was not so good. The firm’s office on the South London borough’s London Road was part of an entire block to be razed when rioting spilled over into Monday 14 August. Although the firm has bases in East Dulwich and London Bridge, in Croydon it lost everything.
“Our Croydon office was burnt out during the extraordinary scenes on Croydon Road,” says the firm’s principal Greg Stewart. “We’d just refurbished the office, so the timing couldn’t have been worse.
“The last lawyer left in the office locked up and escaped out the back shortly before 8pm. By midnight we knew the street was ablaze. All our files and legal resources have been destroyed. While all client details were held on a separate server at our HQ, many prosecution papers were not.”
GT Stewart specialises in criminal cases and does a lot of work on youth crime, but Stewart admits that the scenes of rioting and looting were beyond anything he had ever experienced.
“One of the reasons we moved to Croydon was that the area has many of the problems associated with our clients,” he says. “It’s a very deprived part of London and our lawyers
are used to the challenges this brings, but by late [Monday] afternoon, even for that area, the events were shocking, with wholesale theft and disorder.”
Nick Diable, a solicitor advocate and founder of Erica Peat & Diable in East London, agrees that the extent and scale of the rioting was shocking. His firm’s offices on Hackney’s Mare Street were not damaged, but many of its neighbours, including an independent optician next door, were not so lucky.
“Everything around us was destroyed,” recalls Diable. “Our immediate neighbour is an optician and she had her windows caved in and everything taken, even the display stands. Everything was stripped out. Our firm’s been here for 10 years and I’ve not seen anything like this. You see some interesting things around here, but nothing like this.”
The speed with which things happened took many by surprise. James Allie, a solicitor at Hackney-based Spence & Horne, says the first he knew there was going to be trouble was when the firm’s work experience student arrived at 11am and read on Twitter that youths were planning to gather at Hackney Town Hall in the afternoon.
“At 1 o’clock all the shops on the main thoroughfare were closed and had their shutters down, but we stayed open because we thought, ’Why would they come to Hackney?’,” says Allie. “By 4 o’clock three police vans were parked outside the office and 12 officers with riot gear got out; at 4.20pm a bunch of 30 kids came from the top end of Mare Street and we could hear the roar.”
As Spence & Horne’s offices are situated up a flight of stairs, the firm escaped unscathed, but the jewellery shop directly below and the branch of Marks & Spencer next door were both attacked.
“I was stuck in the office and just had to sit and watch it as it went on,” says Allie. “I didn’t get out until 10pm. I stayed because someone had to look after the office. I had to make sure nothing untoward happened.”
Further up Mare Street at the Town Hall, London Borough of Hackney legal chief Gifty Edila had managed to escape after the police ordered everyone to vacate the building.
“We all left from 4pm onwards; around that time they were all beginning to gather outside the Town Hall,” recalls Edila. “Being a public service agency, it wouldn’t have looked good to abandon things earlier, but a number of people had to change their routes home. I was heading towards [the rioters] and had to change direction.”
For council staff the clean-up started almost immediately, with the waste management team ensuring the streets of Hackney were spotless by morning, while the legal team began offering support to local businesses.
“We’ve been engaging with local businesses about a number of support packages,” Edila reveals. “A number of things have come out of central government, such as how to claim under the Riot Damages Act. Normally you get only 14 days to make a claim, but the Government extended that to 42 days - we’ve got a team that’s going out to inform people about this.”
Diable admits that there is not much his firm can do to help the local community, but says that he too has tried to hand out advice about how people can make claims under the Riot Damages Act.
“A lot of people in the area didn’t have sufficient insurance,” he explains. “There was a shop around the corner and the guy couldn’t afford insurance this year - he had buildings [cover], but nothing for contents. I put some info on my blog about how people can make a claim and we produced some advice and sent it to the local press and local businesses that had been affected.”
For many of the small firms operating in the vicinity of the riots the immediate impact was a drop-off in work, with reduced opening hours and frightened clients leading to many cancelled appointments.
“It meant we were dead for the whole week,” says Spence & Horne’s Allie, a social welfare specialist. “None of our clients would come out, especially young mothers and OAPs. The business didn’t really function much as they were all cancelling appointments, and it’s not quite picked up.”
Sam Okeke-Ewo, a solicitor at Hackney-based immigration firm Harrison Morgan Solicitors, says that, while the riots occurred at the opposite end of Mare Street from where his firm is based, in the confusion that ensued he was forced to cancel most of his appointments.
Other firms, meanwhile, have seen more work come their way, with many representing some of the people charged in connection with violent disorder offences. For those who no longer have offices from which to work, meeting with clients has proved difficult to coordinate.
“It’s been very inconvenient,” says Reveglia at EBR Attridge. “I’ve either seen clients at my Holborn office, which is inconvenient for them, or I managed to see one in the secretaries’ office that survived and had to send the secretaries out for an early lunch. It’s not ideal to say the least. In reality I’ve been forced to delay appointments that I would have otherwise arranged until our temporary offices are ready.”
Yet Reveglia, who is representing a number of people arrested in connection with the riots, takes a pragmatic view of what actually happened.
“As far as I’m concerned,” he says, “what happened on the Saturday night was that there were a number of people protesting, then what happened subsequently was all to do with looting and had nothing to do with protesting about anything. At the end of the day, we have our offices in that area and it’s something that’s happened.”
Diable, meanwhile, says that, with his firm representing “a couple” of alleged rioters, he will not let his judgement be coloured by the destruction he saw in his local community.
“On the one hand, you see someone smashing up people’s businesses around you and you think what a nasty bunch, but when you meet the individuals and they say they’re falsely accused you’re straight back into defence lawyer territory,” he says. “The people we’re representing are saying they were in the area watching; the people who’ve been sentenced have pleaded guilty.”
The sentences being handed out by magistrates across England are a subject on which Stewart and Reveglia are united. Both feel that sentences such as four years for attempting to incite riots via Facebook and six months for stealing water worth £3.50 do not reflect well on the justice system.
“The magistrates are being a bit heavy-handed,” says Reveglia. “What happened can’t be condoned, but the judiciary has to act dispassionately and hand out sentences in accordance with the guidelines handed to them. Local youths may have gone mad, but that doesn’t justify the judiciary doing the same. During the peak of the arrests the courts were sitting through the night. This will result in a lot of appeals, taking up even more court time.”
Stewart says that, as a criminal defence lawyer, he has been “bemused by the apparent suspension to the application of basic Bail Act concepts. I understand that the judiciary will want to send out a message,” he continues, “but the obvious political dangers inherent in all sentences become even more obvious at times like these.
“There are many who should rightly plead not guilty, despite the rush for justice, and who should be on bail. There are those who’ve pleaded guilty who should be ordered to clean up the streets and make proper reparation rather than let them help overcrowd an expensive prison estate.”
With public sector cuts leaving many local authorities operating on shoestring budgets, such unpaid labour would be welcome. In the meantime councils are left deliberating the wider implications the riots will have on their services.
“We’re continuing to have discussions about the long-term impact of the riots,” says Edila. ”Immediately we dealt with cleanliness and support for businesses, but councillors and the mayor will continue to debate the future.”