Right to remain silent?
4 May 1999
Why would a quiet man like John Dickinson choose to represent one of the child killers of James Bulger? Elizabeth Davidson sounds him out.
Graysons solicitor John Dickinson takes reticence to the point of absurdity. Ask him where he worked in the past and he will refuse to tell you. He even refuses to disclose whether he lives in Sheffield, where his office is based.
So why has this media-shy lawyer chosen to represent one of the most notorious, high-profile killers in the country? Dickinson's client is Jon Venables, the Merseyside boy, 10 years old at the time, whose gruesome murder of toddler James Bulger still haunts the national conscience six years on.
The European Commission on Human Rights stated last month that Venables and his accomplice Robert Thompson did not receive a fair trial, although it stopped short of saying they suffered inhuman and degrading treatment. Venables' case is expected to appear before the European Court in Strasbourg later this year. Venables is not arguing his innocence and there will be no retrial if he wins.
When he took on the case, Dickinson was presumably aware that there would be hysterical public reaction to his moves on behalf of Venables, and that he would inevitably be thrust into the spotlight.
The Daily Mail has claimed that lawyers will be the only ones to benefit from the case, in an article headlined: "The trial was fair, the sentence was just. So why are lawyers exploiting this terrible tragedy?". Given this sort of media hype, you would think Dickinson would be donning boxing gloves and leaping into the ring to fight his corner. On the contrary, he gives the impression that he simply does not care what people think of him.
He only agrees to the interview on the basis that we will talk solely about the Venables case and steadfastly refuses to be drawn on any personal details. Although terse and tired-looking, he remains courteous and smiles continually as he refuses to answer questions.
Asked what purpose can be served by raking up the grim circumstances of the case again, Dickinson states simply: "Why have a trial process?" Asked how he can justify the distress the case will cause James Bulger's family, Dickinson says: "It is part of the trial process and any trial causes distress to the people involved."
Even his appointment as Venables' lawyer - taking over from Liverpool criminal solicitor and sole practitioner Laurence Lee two years after the original trial - remains shrouded in mystery. He will only say that he was recommended for the appointment and refuses to say why, or by whom.
His former employer, Bill Nash of London firm Nash & Howell, says he recommended Dickinson for the job. Nash, a former legal officer at what is now Liberty, says various people concerned about the civil liberties implications of the Bulger trial contacted him and a meeting was arranged in Sheffield. Nash could not attend and recommended that Dickinson take his place.
It is thought that Dickinson was also recommended for the job by Aftermath, a charity that helps rehabilitate offenders and educates the public about the effect of serious crimes on families. Venables' family were happy to appoint him their solicitor.
There are also whispers that Dickinson has links with a US civil liberties organisation which is putting up money for the case, but Dickinson laughs when this is suggested to him. He claims there is no outside funding for the case whatsoever, apart from the legal aid supplied by the Commission.
This suggests that Dickinson will lose money in the case. Commission funding is notoriously lean - Robin Makin of Rex Makin, the Liverpool solicitors firm which is representing James Bulger's father, Ralph, for example, recalls that the Commission's legal aid grant for one of his cases fell short in terms of remuneration for fee-earning hours by u100,000.
Dickinson may raise his profile by taking the case, but his publicity-shy behaviour suggests this is not his motive. He could be a staunch believer in children's rights but his answers do not betray any such enthusiasm. When asked about the absence of human rights documents for children, rather than launch into passionate discussion, he reels off a dry list of relevant international treaties. He refuses to say whether he is politically motivated, stating simply that he believes in the rule of law over politics.
So why has he accepted the case? Colleagues believe Dickinson's motivation lies in his religious beliefs: Dickinson, they say, is a devout Anglican. They paint him as a kind of modern-day Good Samaritan, describing him as a "good person" who holds strong moral principles and chooses to act on them. According to Nash, he is "able, likeable and conscientious" and "has no enemies". People who know him are not surprised by his reticence, saying he is a quiet man and "not one to blow his own trumpet".
One senior QC describes Dickinson as "a lawyer's lawyer". Yet, for reasons which he keeps to himself, Dickinson has spurned the traditional legal career path. A criminal law solicitor, he declined partnership offers with Nash & Howell, where he worked for 10 years until 1988. He then moved to Sheffield, where he has worked with John Hull and Graysons. Again he did not accept partnership with either firm. Over the past 10 years he has carved out a niche for himself representing prisoners.
Dickinson admits that he finds dealing with the press stressful. It is unfortunate for him then that he is unlikely to avoid the media frenzy which will doubtless accompany the next stage of the Venables case.