Sue James speaks to Alastair Logan about acting for Paddy Armstrong in the Guildford Four case, and how this changed his life.
‘We were sitting in the Wimpy Bar in Guildford after the committal hearing and I said, “I think my guy’s innocent.” And they all turned to me and said, “We actually think the same about ours as well.”’ It was the first time the four legal representatives had openly revealed their concerns about the case.
‘It felt like we were doing something incredibly dishonest,’ Alastair says. It was 1975. The height of the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland and the middle of a bombing campaign in England by the IRA. There was a huge anti-Irish feeling. ‘You can imagine the way it was then,’ he says. ‘To suggest that they had been wrongly accused meant they had been fitted up.’
I had arranged to meet Alastair at The Law Society’s 113 Restaurant and Bar in Chancery Lane. It’s modern and light, in contrast to the traditional decor elsewhere in the Grade II listed building. He’s already there, sitting on one of the turquoise velvet sofas, when I arrive slightly red-faced. I’ve just walked from Temple tube station on an unusually hot September day, so I order a pint of lime and soda and a coffee for Alastair. It’s 4 pm.
I’m slightly nervous that my interest in the Guildford Four case will take over the interview, but I want to know everything. As a law student, I followed the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six, and the Bridgewater Four cases as they progressed through the courts. They fuelled my desire to become a lawyer – to want to make change for others.
Paddy Armstrong, Gerry Conlon, Paul Hill and Carole Richardson were wrongly convicted of carrying out the 1974 IRA bomb attacks on the Horse and Groom and the Seven Stars pubs in Guildford. They became known as the Guildford Four. Five people were killed and 65 were injured. No one has ever been lawfully punished for the offences. The families of the victims are still seeking justice.1On 31 January 2019, it was announced that the inquest into the deaths would be resumed. No date has yet been set. The family of one of the victims, Ann Hamilton, who was aged 19, has been refused legal aid for the inquest.
Alastair talks as if the events happened yesterday rather than 45 years ago. He received a phone call at 10 am on 10 December 1974 from the legal aid clerk in Guildford, who asked: ‘Do you want a legal aid certificate to act on behalf of one of the bombers?’ He refused initially (as he thought there were bigger firms better able to handle the case) but at 2 pm the clerk rang back. She had telephoned every firm in Guildford. No one else would take the case. ‘So I got Patrick Armstrong, capital A, top of the list.’
As he’s talking, I think of those ‘sliding door’ moments in our lives. Alastair qualified as a solicitor in 1968. He had a very small practice, doing a mix of conveyancing and county court work. He was just six years qualified when he took on what became known as one of the biggest miscarriage of justice cases in British history. I say: ‘One phone call changed your life.’ He corrects me: it was two.
Telling the truth
Alastair went to see Paddy at Guildford Police Station the following day. He could see that Paddy was shaking and had bruising to the side of his face. ‘The injuries were quite fresh, but they weren’t immediate,’ he says. Alastair asked the police to explain the injuries and was told that Paddy had fallen down the stairs. The only evidence against the Guildford Four was their confessions – beaten from them.
The more I looked at it, and the more I looked at the police evidence, I was convinced Paddy was telling the truth.
Alastair spent time visiting Paddy in Brixton Prison following the hearing, and started to build a coherent statement. He says: ‘The more I looked at it, and the more I looked at the police evidence, I was convinced Paddy was telling the truth.’ He started travelling to London to map Paddy’s alibi, mainly visiting squats where Paddy had lived. ‘It’s really stupid when you think about it,’ Alastair says. ‘I was driving a powder-blue E-Type Jag up to London and parking it around the corner from these squats.’ The car was fine, but Alastair tells me he was quite badly knocked about in one of the squats, sustaining cuts to his head. It didn’t deter him.
The man behind the case
Alastair’s father was principal of the University of London, the senior administrative officer. He tells me his grandfather was Garter King of Arms, as was his father before. I don’t actually know what this means, but it sounds impressive.2Readers who are interested should visit the College of Arms website for more information.
I ask him what his mother did. He replies: ‘Well, she actually engaged in marriage quite frequently,’ which makes me laugh. She died just last year at the age of 98. He describes her as amazing and uses the same word for his half-sister, who recently transitioned to a woman. ‘She drives articulated lorries, the size of which you wouldn’t believe,’ he laughs.
He is from a long line of lawyers (five in the family) but didn’t want to study law. ‘I wanted to be a soldier,’ he says. His father wouldn’t let him, though, even though Alastair won a scholarship to Sandhurst. I ask him why he became a solicitor and not a barrister. He replies: ‘I wanted to talk to people. I didn’t want to have my cases second-hand.’
He trained at a firm in Lincoln’s Inn. The partner was half-Italian, so the firm had a large Italian client base. He explains that divorce was unlawful in Italy at the time, so they had a lot of work – often serving papers on Italians trying to flee with their children. He recalls being chased by ‘one very irate Italian with a very large knife around Charing Cross station’.
Alastair spent 15 years trying to secure the release of Paddy Armstrong; on 19 October 1989, he was successful. It was Alastair who was waiting for Paddy at the rear of the Old Bailey (in his Jag). He knew that for Paddy to have the best possible chance to rebuild a life outside prison, he needed to be away from the press.
The story of the wrongful conviction of the Guildford Four has become part of our culture, or at least our cultural knowledge, but it’s startling to listen to Alastair recount the history. ‘They were pretty sure they had the wrong guy from the outset,’ he says. During a riot at Hull Prison, Paddy gained access to his files. Inside it read: ‘This man is believed to be innocent.’ This was just two years into his sentence.3Paddy Armstrong with Mary-Elaine Tynan, Life after life: a Guildford Four memoir, Gill Books, March 2017.
I ask Alastair’s view on whether the case, if heard now, would have got past the Criminal Cases Review Board (CCRB). ‘No, it would never have got beyond the first appeal,’ he replies. ‘The CCRB needs its own independent investigation team, it needs independent people of calibre.’
Above and beyond
After his release, Paddy went to live with Alastair. He stayed for more than six months. I suggest to Alastair that I don’t know many solicitors who would do that. His response: ‘What else could I do?’ It isn’t the first time he says that to me. He’s modest. I think he’s exceptional. Paddy Armstrong is of the same view. His book, Life after life: a Guildford Four memoir, is dedicated to Alastair. Reading the book, I’m moved by some of Paddy’s words: ‘He continues to work for us, as he feels it’s his duty … No matter what I do for the rest of my life I’ll never be able to pay him back.’
In the book, Paddy describes Alastair and Pat (Alastair’s second wife) as his surrogate parents. They take him shopping and to his doctors, teach him how to cross the road and how to use money again. Alastair says: ‘He would go into shops with a £20 note to buy a packet of fags, because he couldn’t work out the money, and he’d end up with buckets of cash.’
[My first marriage] fell apart when I got sentenced to death by the National Front.
I remind Alastair that Paddy puts himself forward as the reason for the break-up of his first marriage. ‘That fell apart when I got sentenced to death by the National Front,’ he explains. The letter arrived at the house and his wife opened it. The death threat made her ‘go bananas’, he says. ‘She made it a condition of the continuance of our marriage that I stop acting.’
By this time, Alastair was acting for many IRA men whose conditions of imprisonment were being challenged in the High Court. He won a reputation inside the prison system, and as a result started to act for more prisoners. One of them was Harry Roberts, who had been convicted of killing two police officers in 1966, with a tariff of 30 years. By the time Alastair obtained his release, Harry, aged 78, had served 48 years.
Alastair says what angered him was that when he started to look at the rights of prisoners, the Prison Rules mentioned only one: the right of the prisoner to know the nature of the charge against them when facing disciplinary action. His anger turns to fury when he talks of the treatment of Giuseppe Conlon, Gerry’s father. He says: ‘Giuseppe was on the third floor of Wakefield Prison but couldn’t get down the stairs to eat. It was against prison rules for another inmate to take food up. Giuseppe was only kept alive by other prisoners using their own money to buy him Complan.’
Legal aid has always been essential, absolutely essential, to everything I did. The present situation is awful.
Alastair started to use the European Convention on Human Rights
, the United Nations Charter
and the European Court of Human Rights to improve the rights of prisoners. It was only because of legal aid that he was able to do this. ‘Legal aid has always been essential, absolutely essential, to everything I’ve done,’ he says. ‘The present situation is awful.’
We talk about advances made with the passing of the Human Rights Act 1998. He feels our current human rights aren’t as well protected as they should be, particularly in relation to children, housing and those on benefits: ‘These are areas where austerity and lack of care have produced these terrible situations.’
I ask him what he would say to people coming into the profession now. ‘It’s very rewarding,’ he replies. ‘It allows people to move on from where they were. That’s the real golden thing. You may have to work hard to make change, but it is possible.’ He has continued to do so, taking up other contentious issues including domestic abuse, female genital mutilation and, more recently, the use of Tasers.
I look at my watch and two-and-a-half hours have slipped easily away. I was so absorbed that I didn’t think to get Alastair another drink. I hope there will be another opportunity.
It’s hard to do justice to Alastair’s commitment, his tenacity and his absolute persistence. Instead, I will use the words of Lord Devlin and Lord Scarman from the article they wrote to The Times on 30 November 1988: ‘Two Lords of Appeal argue that the convictions of four alleged IRA bombers 14 years ago rest upon a fundamental error of law which threatens Britain’s system of trial by jury’. They say of Alastair: ‘He is one of those pilgrims of the law who, when Justice beckons, pick up the staff and the scrip and walk. Legal aid has long since dried up. He is walking still.’
Hero in the law
Lord Devlin and Lord Scarman
Willesden Magistrates’ Court (where I cut my teeth). I have many stories to tell, especially on a Thursday afternoon
I ask Alastair what his favourite case is. Before he speaks, I laugh and say, ‘Hmm, I wonder which one?’, to which he replies, also laughing, ‘A bit difficult to say not, isn’t it?’
Favourite animal case
A matrimonial case in which they tried to divide the dog
I haven’t really got one – but I always fancied myself with a Mohican
Dry white wine
‘Rocky Mountain Way’, the Eagles; ‘Funeral for a Friend’, Elton John
Favourite lawyer in TV/film/book
Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird
'At the bar' is a series of articles in which Sue James, winner of the outstanding achievement award at the 2017 Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards, interviews friends of access to justice in informal settings and over a glass (or two!)