If the housing duty scheme is like speed dating, then anti-social behaviour cases are more akin to salvaging a relationship in the last throes of life – chucking everything at it just to keep it alive. Against all the odds.
And the odds were definitely against Guinness, a dog whose owner, Ronald, desperately wanted him but was unable to look after him. His owner’s chronic alcoholism meant that he couldn’t organise his life to take Guinness for walks, and so his social landlord wanted him evicted. He’d lived in his flat for 21 years, the last seven with Guinness.
So why was he prepared to give up his home to be with Guinness?
I needed to know, as this surely was the key to telling his story and helping him keep his home (there is always a story beneath the story). I dug a little and he wanted to tell: of course, he hadn’t always been an alcoholic. He’d been a successful cameraman in South Africa. He’d worked on the film Zulu and met Michael Caine. He thought he’d travel to the UK to make his fortune. That didn’t happen due to a downturn in the film industry but he fell in love and had a son. The relationship didn’t last and he brought up his son alone, taking whatever jobs he could to provide. His life imploded when his son was killed on holiday in the US, aged 18. Drink was initially Ronald’s refuge but in time it became his misfortune.
And Guinness had become the embodiment of all that he’d lost in his life. He just couldn’t cope with another loss.
I first met Ronald when I was on the Brentford County Court duty scheme.
He was incredibly tall and gaunt with a mop of wild curly hair. Despite his size, he seemed defeated, dishevelled. His clothes hung from him and there was a distinctive odour. It was clear he hadn’t washed in a while. He was 72 years old, softly spoken and gentle in manner. He didn’t understand why he was at court. He repeated often while crying: ‘Why does he have to go? I’ve had him since he was a pup.’
I took on his case and we pressed forward with his defence. At trial he was advised he was likely to lose his home unless he found Guinness somewhere new to live. Reluctantly – and with many tears and bursts of anger from this placid man – he agreed. So the order for possession was suspended on those terms.
Four months later we were back in court suspending the warrant as (of course) Guinness was still in residence. Ronald just couldn’t do it. He could not get rid of Guinness. I was duty solicitor the same day, so I instructed counsel to represent him. I had spent the day before the hearing trying to find a home for the dog. But with no luck. I even had a mad idea that social services might walk the dog – kind of a home/dog help sort of thing. Because all that was needed was the dog to be walked. It was simple. Hmm.
Ronald made it to court (eventually) supported by two friends (Anthony and James) and multiple cans of strong lager to give him courage, which were confiscated at the court door. Counsel took control of the case and I carried on seeing the numerous clients who had turned up at court needing representation. Not long later, counsel informed me that Ronald would not give up the dog as “he would rather die than live without Guinness”. Many men have felt the same I’m sure, but I knew an alternative solution was needed.
Ronald was crying loudly. In the large waiting room of the court building other solicitors and tenants stared. I sat down and tried to reason with him. He was banging his fists on his head and rocking back and forth. He bit his lip, blood streamed down his chin. By this time I was prepared to consider anything – so I offered to take the dog myself.
Counsel thought I had gone mad. I think I had. Luckily, I found a less dramatic solution by persuading Ronald’s friend Anthony to take the dog. The only problem now (according to counsel) was persuading the judge that the dog really would leave Ronald’s flat. It was at this point the madness again took over and I agreed an undertaking. So after I had finished my other seven duty cases, I drove Ronald and Anthony home to pick up Guinness and re-home him. All by 5pm.
Upon arrival I found the dog wasn’t in Ronald’s flat but at James’s, around the corner. James was currently out, signing on (why this information was never passed on to me I don’t know). I had promised the court I would remove the dog from a flat he wasn’t actually in, and I could be sent to prison for not keeping my promise. So we waited.
Thirty minutes later, James was spotted running down the road with a bag of shopping. He threw the bag on to the grass outside his flat and ran off to another house shouting something about getting a ladder. He returned minutes later with the smallest stepladder in the world. It seems James didn’t have a key to his own flat, as he had given it to a mate to look after Guinness – who had gone out.
Neither James, nor the ladder, was tall enough to make it on to the first floor roof that led to James’s open window. As two young boys walked past Anthony asked them to climb up to the first floor window and into the flat. If successful he would give them a fiver. Just as they are contemplating this, Guinness appeared at the window – mouth wide open – his enormous teeth on full display. On seeing the dog, the boys changed their mind and ran off shouting, ‘What you doing breaking into someone’s flat anyway?’ ‘It’s fine,’ I said, ‘I’m a solicitor.’
James tried again, and somehow he managed to scramble on to the roof but without anything to hold on to he slipped down, grabbing the guttering which bent and buckled beneath him. I really did think my next call would be for an ambulance and I’d have to explain all of this the following week to the judge. With a little perseverance though, James made it safely inside to deliver Guinness to Ronald. The three of them jumped into my car for the short drive to Anthony’s flat and – with much relief – my undertaking was discharged.
Cut to one year later and I’m back in court applying to suspend the warrant a second time. Everyone agrees the dog now doesn’t live there but visits (in breach of the last court order). When I say to the judge: ‘Sir, you wouldn’t believe how far this case has moved forward in the last year.’ I’m not sure he really understands – but it seems the odds are with us.
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