The nun with an anti-social habit

Sue James with more tales from the housing duty desk. Read other articles in the series here.

Some clients leave an impression, like a stone or a leaf rubbing. Sister Sara was one of those. She was funny and articulate, and truly on a mission, in every sense of the word. The snow globe of the virgin birth she gave me is now all I have left to remind me of the year she brightened up my office, and my life.

Sister Sara appeared on a busy afternoon duty session at Hammersmith County Court along with an entourage. They had come across town from St Paul’s Cathedral, where they were camped out with the Occupy movement. She was cross because security had confiscated the four foot statue of the Virgin Mary she was carrying, on the grounds that it might be an offensive weapon. This didn’t go down well.

I agreed to see her, but with the proviso that her followers wait outside as they were all talking at the same time, so it was hard to think. Once quiet, I read her papers. She was being evicted by her landlord for anti-social behaviour and rent arrears. Allegedly, she had been stealing red wine from the communal lounge, and leaving religious literature around the sheltered housing complex. She saw blasphemy everywhere – and this is how she had got into trouble.

She wore a long blue flowing gown, with a large picture of Jesus Christ on the front. Chains of rosary beads and crosses adorned her neck. Wiry grey curly hair nestled tightly on top of her head. She was 72 and a nun. She pulled behind her a shopping trolley. These would vary according to the particular mission she was on. She bought a special one for the Olympics, brightly coloured with plastic flowers dotted around the top. She stood daily on the edge of the Olympic Park, giving out her literature and spreading the Lord’s message.

I took instructions. Directions were agreed with the claimant, and we went into court. Sister Sara sat alongside me on the front bench; everyone else in the row of chairs along the back wall. It was pretty packed. We sought the judge’s approval of the order that had been drafted with the landlord`s solicitor. He turned to Sister Sara and said: ‘Do you understand that Ms James has agreed to assist you?’ She replied: ‘I’ve never seen her before, although she does seem very nice, but I don’t half fancy you judge.’ Adding: ‘Well I’m a hot blooded woman and you’re a good looking man.’ I decide it’s safer not to look up and gather my papers to leave.

Her interest in men, particularly young ones, continued throughout the life of her case. When I left my son and his friend with her to photocopy papers (they were in the office doing work experience), she informed me on my return: ‘These boys can’t possibly be my toy boys, Sue, one of them’s your son.’

The devil certainly was in the detail of her case, as she regularly accused others of satanic worship. She would turn up at the office with bundles of papers ready to sue anyone who was not living a pure life. During her housing case, she was accused of sending hoax poison through the post. She admitted sending the letters but insisted someone else must have added the white powder. ‘Why would I do that, with my name and address on it?’ She did have a point.

We were able to sort out a settlement in her case once she was sectioned and the Official Solicitor appointed. Sister Sara hadn’t been able to stay in her sheltered accommodation due to restraining orders. At one point, she was living in a flat off the A4, near Heathrow. She would leave home each morning and travel from hotel to hotel, requesting tea and photocopying services from reception.

I had many discussions with her about the state of the world, the economy and religion (of course), although it was sometimes hard to get her to leave the office. This was problematic if I needed get on with other work or go home. It was also hard to justify public funding (as it was called then) on such matters.

Once sectioned, she had to remain in hospital, where she was given heavy doses of medication. After a few months she was allowed out, so I arranged to see her to tie up the last bits of her case. She shuffled down the corridor and into my room, shaking as she did so. She sat down and tried to speak but her speech was slow and difficult. It was as if her personality had been removed. I couldn’t think properly, I felt so upset. When she left, I telephoned the hospital to complain. Her care supervisor confirmed the medication had given her extreme Parkinson’s symptoms. ‘Surely, you have to stop now, given the effect?’ They had stopped some time ago, I was told, but the effects were now almost certainly permanent. I wanted to cry.

For a while I was left with a lingering sadness about her case, but then I kind of forgot about her until recently. My son’s friend was back in our office working in his gap year. As I arrived after a court hearing he said: ‘Guess who phoned this morning?’ I was pleased when he told me it was her. Then it seemed each time he was on reception, Sister Sara would phone (almost instinctively). I was heartened. This much activity surely meant she was back to her old self.

I hope so, anyway.




About Sue James

Sue has been a housing solicitor for more than 20 years. She has worked in a number of law centres and private practice. In addition she was a mental health solicitor representing the most vulnerable people detained under the Mental Health Act. She has a strategic role in the running of Hammersmith Law Centre where she is currently employed as the responsible legal officer

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