In The South

Carry On Up The Crown Prosecution Service

Craig Hanlon-Smith July 26, 2017

Or: Why, the next time it happens, I’m not sure I will bother the police, by Craig Hanlon-Smith

On the evening of May 13, 2016, my husband and I boarded a First Class train carriage to Manchester from London Euston. We heard the ladies before we saw them, as the group of three, aged between 35 and 55, rolled up the aisle laughing hysterically and demonstrating every gulp of wine they had clearly spent the afternoon mistaking for water and solids. As they settled at the table in front of us we were thankfully invisible to them, but they were giving the train crew a particularly hard time.

The train manager let it be known that he could have refused to allow them to travel based on their behaviour on the platform, whatever that was, but that they would not be served any alcohol on board. As the refreshment trolley arrived, and they were politely refused service of anything stronger than tea, pandemonium ensued.

You can but imagine the self-righteous indignation of Wilmslow’s drunken finest, as the carriage was repeatedly informed by the ringleader of the ladies (I shall refer to her as woman one), just how much money had been spent on First Class tickets which ‘entitled’ them to drink more wine. The train crew were politely and rightly having none of it, and as our leading lady began wafting her chiffon scarf in their faces and screeching as if to impersonate a steam train whistle, the Virgin West Coast staff asked for our help. “Please would you be witnesses to what is occurring here?” the manager apologised, and from the moment we kindly agreed, so it began.

As we wrote our names and contact details down for the train manager, woman one, invited herself to come and sit at our table and so ensued an onslaught of abuse which began with her suggesting that my husband’s wife was a slut. This was one of only two times I intervened to inform our intruder that the gentlemen did not to my knowledge have a wife as he was married to me. In the interest of moving the plot forward I shall spare you the grislies, but we had barely moved on to: “You’re both going to die soon because men your age kill themselves“ before woman one took advantage of the information I had graciously given her, and asked: “Were your parents proud of you when you told them you were gay?” In short this took the lid off one of the accompanying flock, whom I shall refer to as woman two, informed us that, “Your problem is you’re too fucking gay,” and in case we were hard of hearing repeated the latter part of this three times.

The train crew and manager were wonderful throughout, contacting the Virgin Communication Centre and then the police who, we were promised, would soon be boarding and the ladies off-loaded. The hostilities continued throughout the journey, phoning their friends and laughing hysterically, repeating: “We’re going to be arrested because some gay guys think we’re homophobic – we’re not homophobic” and the manager came and sat at our table, now called “a queer lover” and “gay wannabe” for his trouble. I’ve spared you the detail but their abuse and humiliation continued unabated for an hour and a half.

The police did eventually board in Crewe, 90 minutes into our experience, at which point whilst her companions became mute (woman three had remained pretty silent throughout to be fair), woman one threw herself to the floor, began kicking the doors and punching the floor (I’m not kidding) and began to wail at the injustice of it all, as she was “just trying to get home to her husband” and “I’m not letting happen to me what happened to those poor people in Hillsborough”. 

Were I myself not so upset by the abuse we had just tolerated for an hour and half, I might actually have offered her a cuddle at this point and asked: “You ok, hun?” but to be clear, as we had not engaged with these women at all during this abuse, we were not about to start now.

The police took us to another carriage, and we were pursued by two men we had not seen until now who offered their services to the police as witnesses. “What these men have been though for the whole journey has been terrible,” they informed the senior officer and he took their details promising they would be contacted in due course. We asked if the women would now be removed from the train. Alas, no. We were assured that now we were in the company of the officers we were safe, and although the Senior Officer apologised, he stated clearly that he did not have the resources to take these women to the station and to remove two officers from active duty to interview them. We were assured that the women, and we, would be interviewed the very next day.

The police escorted our aggressors off at their stop in Wilmslow and we were immediately heartened by the switch in atmosphere on the carriage. The witnesses shook our hands and strangers came forward to express some sympathy at our experience. One hotelier offered us a complimentary meal and drinks the following evening in central Manchester and the Virgin staff, who had been excellent throughout, took our details and later that week sent gifts to our home. The kindness of strangers quite possibly saved us, certainly me, from losing my marbles that evening.

We were indeed interviewed the next day. Two officers arrived at my brother’s house in Manchester, much to the excitement of the children, and the interviews lasted for almost three hours, separate officers, in different parts of the house, and we read and signed our statements all within 24 hours of the incident. What I remember about the interview now is being asked: “Do you consider this to have been a hate crime?“

I said, “No.” No, on account that we were dragged into an incident that was originally something completely else. Although our sexual orientation was used and abused as a point of fun, insult, intimidation and hostility, I felt their insults were lazy and opportunistic, not from a point of hate. It was their overall behaviour that was upsetting. Self-righteous, indignant, drunk, aggressive, abusive, intimidating, hostile, unrelenting and sustained. Utterly anti-social. For at least 90 minutes, despite our calm and unresponsive exterior, we were humiliated, and in that moment I, for one, felt 13, friendless and embarrassed to be myself in the school canteen, in a small town Lancashire in 1985.

Aside from a wobble on the return journey two days later, when I felt overwhelmingly anxious, we didn’t give the experience much thought, until almost two months later, I was contacted by a CID officer who informed me the case had been passed to him and he would be visiting the alleged offenders within the week. I asked after the investigation and how had the women responded when first interviewed. DC Henderson informed me that this case had moved from desk to desk and that the women had as yet never been interviewed. In short, the only people to have been interviewed within 24 hours of the incident were my husband and myself, no other interviews had at this time taken place. The officer assured me that now the case was his, it would now progress and gather some speed.

To his credit, I received a number of calls from DC Henderson over the coming days to keep me up to date with how the interviews were progressing. The most interesting of which was an offer to us both from woman one.

“The lady in question,” the officer began, “would like me to put to you, that in order to make amends, she is happy to meet you both in London, money is no object and she will take you to a restaurant of your choosing.” 

At this point, we had thought that any investigation into these women would be on account of all their behaviour, including their hostility towards the train crew and so after consulting my husband, I politely informed DC Henderson that we would not be taking up the offer, as we did not want to make such a decision on behalf of the others involved, nor did we wish to step naked into the viper’s nest.

And then it came: “She’s not your average homophobe, sir.” 


“Not at all, she lives in a £1.4million property in a gated complex in Cheshire.” 

Goodbye, officer.

Another three months passed and the police arrived at our house in Brighton, some 250 miles from the incident and original investigation. The officers undertook additional interviews they now referred to as Victim Impact Statements, and informed us the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) were proceeding with a prosecution of woman one and woman two. An initial Magistrates court date was set for late December and the police stated that as there were four witness statements, the evidence all matched up, they were likely to plead guilty and that would be the end of that.

In January we receive a court summons. The defendants had pleaded not guilty at their earlier hearing and the Magistrates court trial date is set for mid-March, in Staffordshire, some 10 months after the incident. We agree to attend, but do not want to go. We become irritable with one another in the run up to the date, there is even one full-blown ‘proper’ argument I think borne out of frustration, embarrassment, and all those feelings of being the stupid skinny 13-year-old gay boy shouted at in the playground. The whole episode feels grubby, upsetting and unnecessary, after all, all we did was get on a train and agree to help the beleaguered crew in the face of these drunken women.

As we sit in the witness waiting room, it feels uneasy but strangely comforting to be reunited with people who helped us on that night. The train manager, John, arrives with his manager who has attended to support him, small acts of kindness that remind me of the good in the world. We begin discussing the events of 10 months ago and John informs us, “When the police contacted me to make a statement, I had forgotten all about it, it was more than three months after the fact.” 

We are stunned. Three months? How can a witness be expected to recount accurately events that took place three months prior?

The prosecutor enters and informs us that our statements cannot be located. He asks if we have seen and read them recently, and we inform him not since the day we signed them ten months earlier, no. He bumbles off appearing confused, harassed and his dishevelled appearance leaves me with little confidence that he is the man for any job, let alone this one. We hear the names of the defendants called out over the tannoy system, it’s game on. I pull my socks up, breathe deeply, and smile weakly at my husband in the vain hope he will not appreciate how sick I am now feeling.

The prosecutor returns, now sweating, and states: “You’ve heard what’s happened?” I have no idea where he thinks we’re accessing our court information when we have spent the past 90 minutes in a waiting room with witnesses to cases of domestic violence, pub brawls and bicycle theft.

We are informed in somewhat rushed and hurried tones that, in short, the administrators working for the CPS, had completed the paperwork for woman one, the main culprit, in the shenanigans on the train, incorrectly. This paperwork had been sent back and forth between the courts, the CPS and the defendant’s solicitor in what can only be described as thinly veiled delaying tactics, and by the time we all arrive at trial the case against her has ‘timed out’. It is now withdrawn by the magistrates and she’s off. All for a simple administrative bungle and a delay in the time it took, woman one will never have to account for her behaviour that night ever again. The prosecutor goes on to say that case against woman two, an also ran, who sporadically ‘joined in’ with the tirade of the main accused has been adjourned and will be heard at a later date, we will need to return in a few months time.

The lid of decorum I have unnaturally maintained at the instruction and advice of everyone around me, except myself, now blows off: “But she’s the case! Without her, there is no case for anyone to answer!” I shout at the prosecutor who feebly puts his hands up like a saloon barman in an all but forgotten shoddy western and says, “I’m just the messenger”.

I feel my husband’s touch upon my elbow, which after 17 years, I have come to understand means pull it back love, and we leave.

I spend the next few days trying to make sense of what has happened and our witness liaison administrator, Loretta Ray, tries to be as helpful as possible. She explains that, although the charge against woman one was clear in the detail of the court papers, the technicality of law states that court documentation must be completed accurately, and it has to be written into a specific box on the form. It was not, and as a result, the form was sent back to be corrected.

However, Loretta was off sick with a bad leg for four weeks and no one opened her post – are you keeping up? Upon returning to work, it was already too late. The CPS did not believe the technicality of law would matter to any great extent and so pursued the case anyway until it was thrown out of court. And as I reread this, I am reminded of the plot of many a Carry On film, the later ones, that were not funny.

I explain to a not nearly bewildered enough Loretta, that the delays by the police in interviewing the accused, then in interviewing other witnesses, then the lack of attention to detail in the administration of this case leads me to feel that it simply did not matter enough. A couple of queens take some verbal stick on the train, nobody died, no one was physically hurt and it is just not a priority. I am transferred to Loretta’s supervisor and repeat my feelings and am told: “It’s not like that,” and “Of course this was taken seriously.”

Some months later, and to our total surprise, the case against woman two comes back to court. Whilst I appreciate that the lady in question did play her part, and did hurl some unpleasantries in our direction, and despite my complete lack of legal credentials, I cannot see it sticking, but the CPS insist and she is charged with a range of verbal related ‘assaults’ with the ‘intent to cause distress’. And so back to the Premier Inn at Cannock for a second court appearance for an event which now took place some 13 months prior.

Let us not dwell too much on the continuing incompetence of those employed by the CPS. In brief, I received an email confirming train tickets booked for a Sunday, when they were in fact booked for the Monday. We did not receive any court notifications or paperwork, when previously we had received reams of it. This was then hastily emailed less than a week before, and clearly identified a 2pm afternoon court session. At 9.35am on the day of the appearance, I receive a phone call from the prosecutor asking where I am as I was expected at court no later than 9.15am. There is, of course, an error on the paperwork and the court session is set to begin at 10am. As all witnesses were invited to attend a court appearance at 2pm, none of the others are able to be there in time for the hearing and arrive much later in the day, once the magistrates have already decided not to waste any more time, and simply read through their statements, not question their authors in person.

I give evidence for close to 90 minutes. The prosecutor (a different one) is quite impressive this time around and asks me to describe several times how the incident had made me feel. The defence lawyer is sympathetic to the experience we had endured, but I can see how this is going to go. His focus is regarding the actions of woman one, who is not present, and suggests that my story is exaggerated to suit my purpose and it is my word against his client’s. He points out to me and to the court, who can in truth decide whether my version of events or his client’s is the correct memory of the incident?

I don’t hold back. “You tell me,” I say, “whether a statement taken within 24 hours of the incident is more or less accurate than one taken two months later,” and although the clerk to the court suggests I may wish to sit in the session for the rest of the day, I politely decline and go home. I am done with it.

A week later, I receive a phone call from Loretta at the CPS witness care division, to inform me that woman two was found ‘not guilty’, and I am, alarmingly to myself, incredibly upset. Not at the verdict, I expected it, I did not believe there was a case against woman two, not on her own, but upset at the whole sorry process.

The incident itself made me feel like a stupid and unattractive gay teenager who would never amount to much, and it was alarming to me how despite when 30 years later you have a great husband, terrific friends, you are secure, content, loved, liked, busy, wanted, and yet all of that teenage horror springs into action in a moment, the anxiety returns and hovers like a threatening thundercloud for months.

More so, the disregard for all of that human sensitivity in how this process was poorly managed by the police and the CPS. For the women not to be dealt with in the moment because the resource is not available, for the accused then not to be interviewed for two months as the case is passed “from desk to desk”. For the witnesses not to be interviewed for three months the reasons for which are unknown; for the total incompetence in completing legal paperwork incorrectly which enables the main horrid culprit to walk away unscathed, and leave woman two crying in the spotlight she should quite possibly never have been in the first place. And for all this to have happened, because we boarded a train, as so many of us do every day, and were asked to help a fellow human being who was taking stick whilst trying to do their job.

The most recent court appearance was, at the time of writing, less than two weeks ago and the verdict delivered to my doormat only a few days ago. The events of the past 13 months may therefore be too close to call, but I have to ask myself the following questions. Faced with the same set of circumstances again, would I put my trust in authority and the ‘right way of doing things’?

When asked to help a staff member in trouble, should my response now be: “Nah mate – you’re on your own, I’m not getting involved”? Who would blame me? Should I have accepted the invitation for a slap up meal swilled down to certain gout with litres of champagne? After all, our friend escaped justice anyway, why not at least see her openly buying her way out of it and get drunk on the proceeds?

We should all fear the cuts to public services, when as a result the aggressive anti-socialites will just be sent home to snuggle up with a hot water bottle. Any suggestion in this part of the world that LGBT+ liaison officers are not needed nor part of future budget plans should be openly and publicly resisted, these officers are there to help us, and without them? Well, see above. And should there be a next time, would I sit quietly with polite decorum in the face of a sustained, horrible and public tirade of abuse and let the justice system run its course? Well that remains to be seen.

I used to be angry with those who were victims of such incidents, and did not report it to the police. “You have a duty, to all of us,” I would say. Now, I understand them more.