Hodge Jones partner Greg Foxsmith believes mentoring young offenders could fill the hole in our justice system. And he’s asking City lawyers to help. Gemma Charles reports
Hidden away in an anonymous office block in Camden is a man who saves lives.
Greg Foxsmith would never be so conceited as to describe himself like this, but his work as a mentor has earned him that accolade from the people he has helped and continues to help.
The criminal defence partner at Hodge Jones & Allen agreed to mentor 26-year-old heroin addict Carla Douglas and 21-year-old football hooligan and repeat offender Michael Quinn upon their release from prison. His efforts for the first six months of the mentoring were caught on camera for the BBC2 series Make Me Honest, which was broadcast earlier this year.
A mixture of patience, gentle but persistent persuasiveness and, above all, breezy optimism on the part of Foxsmith saw him help turn the former offenders’ lives around. Douglas is now clean, married and living in Bournemouth; Quinn, although he dropped out of being mentored, has since got back in contact with Foxsmith, who helped him secure a job at a garden centre, which will allow him to study for a qualification in his passion, landscape gardening.
Douglas, in particular, has come a long way. At the beginning of the programme the ravages of her addiction were plain to see. By the end of the six-month period, Douglas, once a scrawny caricature of herself who lacked self-confidence, was now a woman looking forward to a fulfilling life.
Since the programme went out, Foxsmith has become a bit of a media star. He has appeared on Radio 5 and TV programmes such as Now You’re Talking and Richard & Judy – indeed, a signed picture of TV’s favourite husband and wife team adorns the noticeboard in his office.
But this is not about having his 15 minutes of fame. In fact, when Foxsmith contacted Unlock, the ex-offenders’ charity that runs the scheme, he was unaware that he would be making an appearance on the small screen.
However, he is pleased with the publicity as it aids his quest to get mentoring established as something that is available for everyone coming out of prison who wants it and needs it.
Explaining why he is so taken by what mentoring offers, Foxsmith says: “Being a defence lawyer, you represent people day in and day out with different successes. One recurring theme was that my recidivist clients, especially younger people, were coming back with more and more cases.”
The problems with prison are well documented and Foxsmith, a member of the Howard League for Penal Reform, is familiar with them. But seeing the results of the failing system up close in human form made him want to act. “There are three classic roles of prison: deterrence, rehabilitation and retribution,” he says.
“Well, retribution is the only one that’s true.
“It certainly isn’t a deterrent – our prison population is at an all-time high. There’s very little in the way of rehab and limited education and training. There are projects on an ad hoc basis, but very little. And then whatever there is stops at the point that the prisoner becomes an ex-prisoner.
“A lot of people in prison have come from a bad environment in the first place and are going to go back to it. Coupled with the lack of support, money and education, you don’t have to look very hard to see why you get a cycle of reoffending,” he concludes.
Mentoring, says Foxsmith, could help break that cycle, but at the moment what is on offer is piecemeal and “a bit of a postcode lottery”. The need is certainly there. Not only has Foxsmith been inundated with requests from prisoners for him to become their mentor, but he has also had many people contacting him who are interested in becoming mentors themselves.
Foxsmith is suitably qualified to become the unofficial face of the mentoring movement. He has practised exclusively in criminal law, and particularly in defence, for more than 10 years in the capital. He joined Hodge Jones in 1999 and became a partner two years later.
Foxsmith’s caseload reflects the full spectrum of criminal law, including internet fraud, deception and murder. He has a raft of human rights cases under his belt, including representing the asylum seekers involved in the fire at the Yarlswood Detention Centre and alleged terrorists.
He also defended Herbie Hide when he was the heavyweight boxing champion and Asher D of the So Solid Crew. Incidentally, Foxsmith is still in contact with D (real name Ashley Walters), and hopes to “blag” some tickets to a play starring the rap star for himself and Quinn. The play is about football hooliganism and Foxsmith thinks that it would be great for reformed hooligan Quinn to view it and then discuss the issues it raises afterwards.
His willingness to share his spare time with his mentee neatly illustrates the hole that mentoring fills between the social worker, the probation office and the lawyer. The informal, voluntary nature of the mentor-mentee relationship prevents the mentee from feeling as if they are being dealt with by another part of the system; for once they can speak to someone outside their scene who does not regard them as
“With a client I learn everything about them – their past offences, their schooling, their background, everything. But they know nothing about me apart from my name and the name of the firm. It’s a very one-way thing. So with the mentoring I do try and give a little bit more of myself,” says Foxsmith.
Although it is a requirement that legal aid lawyers have a thorough understanding of the welfare system, as a profession he believes that criminal lawyers could undertake more signposting activities, pointing their clients in the right direction for services. He does, however, think there has to be a clear divide between lawyering and mentoring and a certain wariness, because “you’ll become emotionally involved and you won’t be making decisions based on evidence or the case”. Whereas mentoring, being that step removed, allows for an attachment to be made. In Foxsmith’s case, he has asked Douglas to be the godmother of his seven-month-old son, who was born to him and his wife Sonia, also a criminal lawyer, soon after the filming ended.
I put it to him that being a criminal lawyer must give him an added advantage when mentoring, as he is accustomed to dealing with the typical person in need of help. He concedes that his experience has been useful, but says that a City lawyer could be just as good, and reveals that he will be writing to top law firms to enlist mentors.
“The trouble with City lawyers is they work notoriously long hours, but if they could find the time then they’ve got a lot of skills,” he says. “The good thing about coming from a legal background is that you’re used to having targets and going and getting results, so if you look at mentoring as a project and you put your mind to it, is it really any harder than getting some big, fat-cat deal in the City?”
He has also written to the Home Secretary David Blunkett calling for the establishment of a national organisation which could capture volunteers, train them and then match them up with suitable mentees.
Blunkett did not reply. He instead received a perfunctory letter from a junior minister stating that the Government was satisfied that it was doing all it could. But it will take more than a letter to throw Foxsmith off the trail. He is pursuing a face-to-face meeting with someone from the Home Office.
If he applies the same dedication, determination and effort to turning this organisation into a reality as he does with former offenders, then slowly but surely, the results will come.
Hodge Jones & Allen