Thorn in the side of boys in blue

Jane Hickman found herself in the same position as many of her clients when arrested for cannabis possession. But was she the victim of a vendetta? asks Shaun Pye.

Jane Hickman makes an unconvincing drugs baron. She admits to once smoking a joint at university which, unlike Clinton, she did inhale but says it just sent to her sleep. She says the hardest drug she would imbibe these days is “a chilled chardonnay”.

It makes the events of last July almost comical. Hickman, senior partner with criminal legal aid specialist Hickman & Rose, took a bag of clothes into Wandsworth prison for a client – officers had recently lost most of the man's belongings. The bag was packed by her client's mother – “a woman of the upmost good character”.

Hickman checked beforehand with three different prison officers what the procedure would be and, accordingly, handed the bag in on arrival. The bag was checked. She was “aggressively” searched.

Suddenly a prison officer appeared holding a tiny brown rock and asked: “What's this?”

Hickman says: “I laughed and said it looked like cannabis. I stopped laughing quite quickly.”

She was arrested by prison officers and taken to Tooting police station where she was held for seven hours. There was “an initial clash about how it was appropriate to treat me as I asked them to consider the likelihood of my involvement”.

It was obviously a slow crime day in south London. The heinous offence of possessing £3 worth of dope was ultimately handled by a detective chief inspector.

The Met announced last month that no action would be taken against Hickman. Ironic, she says, that after years of campaigning against police corruption she should find herself so thankful that they acted properly in her case.

One might think the incident would have become nothing more than an amusing after-dinner anecdote. But there is a slightly sinister aspect to the whole affair.

For months Hickman has spearheaded an investigation into alleged brutality by prison officers at Wormwood Scrubs against 20 of her clients.

Within three hours of the arrest her clients in the Scrubs were being told by prison officers that she was no longer fit to represent them. The governor of Wandsworth prison, where Hickman was originally arrested, allegedly told the distraught client involved in the drug arrest that Hickman could no longer act for him.

However, the Prison Service categorically denies that any advice was given to staff to restrict any solicitor's business with their clients.

Contradicting this claim, Hickman maintains that she was the victim of numerous bizarre restrictions imposed by several different prison authorities. Her laptop was confiscated in the middle of one interview. She was refused private visits with clients. When she asked when this rule had been introduced an officer told her “today”. When she asked if the ban covered all solicitors she was told “no, just you”.

Hickman's drug predicament was also leaked to the tabloids almost immediately. The day after her arrest she was speaking alongside the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, at the Legal Action Group conference. Suddenly her pager went berserk with orders to call a number of national newspapers. This, she says, was the most embarrassing moment of her life. Two weeks later the story was leaked again, by unknown persons, to Carlton Television, which ran a news bulletin.

The London solicitor's crusading style has not always won her admirers. A self-confessed “1960s romantic”, Hickman is infused with the “outmoded” idea of protecting the innocent, however unpopular the innocent may be and has long been a pain the backside to police, prison officers and, indeed, other lawyers.

Take her current case involving Mohammed Patel. In 1987 Patel, an accountant with a City bank, made a social call to a client's house only to find £1m-worth of heroin on the kitchen floor and half a division of police officers. Patel was arrested on charges of conspiracy and made a “confession”. Scientific testing later revealed the confession had been significantly altered.

At trial, it is alleged Patel's barrister advised him not to claim the confession was a forgery. Patel got four years.

His case is currently with the court of criminal appeal. Hickman, who came across Patel while investigating wider corruption at Stoke Newington police station, is acting in landmark High Court and European Court of Human Rights actions against the barrister for negligence. The Bar, theoretically immune from such prosecutions, is looking on in trepidation.

Hickman's crusade started in 1974 at North Kensington Law Centre where she defended those arrested in the first Notting Hill Carnival riots. “There were good reasons for that riot. People were treated very badly by an incredibly racist police,” she says.

Since then she says the criminal justice system has gone full circle. “In the 1970s if you were arrested you were guilty. In the 1980s a lot of the explicit racism was addressed and high-profile miscarriages of justice were dealt with.

“But now the benefits which were won have evaporated. Tory and now Labour MPs again believe that prison works and that the priority is to be tough on crime. People have forgotten that not everybody going through the criminal justice system is guilty.”

It is worrying then that, despite “the great need for lawyers to fight against authority”, Hickman says she is glad to be in the second half of her career and would not become a lawyer in today's environment. She says: “It's hard to find a lawyer whose mind is on their work and not on simply surviving.”

While she is pro reform of the legal aid system – most recently backing the Legal Aid Board's proposed tougher restrictions on the granting of legal aid franchises – she warns that quality firms could suffer as well as bad firms. She says the Government wants to foster a middle-tier of firms, of reasonable quality, but without necessarily paying for the best.

Whatever the short to medium-term gains, she fears for the long-term future. In the hands of a “government of different complexion” to Labour, Irvine's reforms could make it easier to “destroy the legal aid system”.

For all her romantic ideals Hickman now spends much of her time managing her 20-fee-earner firm – and loving it. She is currently doing an MBA and enthuses about the challenge of bringing good management practice into legal aid firms.

“We are so far from being one profession.” The Law Society, adds Hickman, is presiding over both City and sole practitioner. “There is so much to learn from the big firms.”

It is rumoured around Chancery Lane that Hickman might be co-opted into the Law Society's newly formed practice management section.

The idealist is also seen by many in the profession as a realist when it comes to running a firm. Friends say while she is a champion of the client, she is also an exceptionally shrewd business manager.

Her recent experience at the wrong end of the law seems to have had little impact on Hickman's practice. In the end, none of her clients stopped instructing her. She says she received a sack-load of supportive letters from the profession.

As for the prison service and the police, she admits that her name remains “a swear word”. But in a way, that can be taken as a compliment.