If he can't spring you, nobody can
Richard Wise is a human hurricane. He can get a woman imprisoned for debt out of jail within six hours and look after his two children at the same time.
Friday, 17 May 1996
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NormalLargeExtra LargeRichard Wise is tousled, verging on dishevelled. Mobile phone in one hand, bright red kids' shoe bag in the other, this afternoon he is ferrying his two small children around Stoke-on-Trent in his battered blue Nissan estate. Lawyer and single parent, Wise combines the two roles to become a sort of human hurricane. Starey-eyed and intense, one minute he is fielding calls from prisons and magistrates courts all over England, the next minute he is grilling his six-year-old daughter about the whereabouts of her packed lunch.
Admirers rate Wise as the most dynamic radical lawyer in the country. Detractors suggest that this soft-spoken 38-year-old is a menace to society. But there is one thing about him on which everyone can agree. Richard Wise is the man who gets women out of prison. He has "sprung" several hundred of them from jail within the past year. Inmates of Holloway, Risley and Drake Hall, the main women's prisons in the UK, whisper the name Richard Wise to new arrivals as though it were the key to the prison gates. If he can't get you out, nobody can.
Wise specialises in obtaining the release of women imprisoned for non- payment of television licences, council tax, small debts and petty fines. Britain is the only country in Western Europe that still jails people for civil debt. Magistrates imprison up to 500 debtors daily, with figures running to around 30,000 a year. About a third of all women sent down are jailed for debt, often unlawfully. Magistrates are supposed to have exhausted all other measures and use custody only as a last resort.
But just as quickly as magistrates put women behind bars for so-called "crimes of poverty", Wise is working round the clock to get them out again. It is hardly the most glamorous area of civil rights work, but Wise's commitment to his clients, whom he rarely meets or even hears from after their release, is total and passionate. And his work has a huge practical impact on the hundreds of women whose freedom he secures and their dependants.
Wise seems to make no distinction between work and personal life. Both areas are equally demanding as, since the breakdown of his marriage last year, he has full-time care of his children every other week. His home is linked umbilically to his office with fax and computer, and the usual office/home boundaries are further blurred by the fact that Wise works mainly with his younger brother Ian, a barrister at Helena Kennedy QC's Doughty Street chambers.
"His office is right next to the High Court, and because he's my brother I can bully him into doing judicial reviews for me. We don't have to be polite to each other either, and that saves a lot of time," says Richard.
The Wise brothers spend, on average, an hour each night talking through cases on the phone, Richard often talking on his mobile while he supervises his children's bath time. On Sunday afternoons, the two brothers thrash out business further while jogging along the canal towpaths of Stoke, their home town.
Both are outsiders to the legal establishment. Richard describes his experience as a working-class child attending a "stuffy" middle-class school as being formative in shaping his attitude towards the class-ridden legal hierarchy. To this day, he takes institutional injustice towards vulnerable individuals personally, which partly explains his commitment to his clients.
"I felt like an outsider," explains Richard, who had learning difficulties and left school at 16 with two O-levels and not much self-confidence. "My mum and dad saw no value in further education."
Richard started out in his father's trade as an apprentice "slabber" , making fireplace surrounds from tile and plaster. Ian left school at 18 and worked as a labourer in a Crewe tea factory for 10 years while studying for an Open University degree.
Maverick to the last, Richard prides himself on not fitting into a comfortable "alternative" bracket either. "The trendy, radical lawyers down in London don't know what to make of me, because I work from an old-fashioned small- town firm of solicitors up north." He seems to delight in challenging, confusing and annoying the sort of people who wrote him off as a child, and clearly identifies far more with his clients than his colleagues.
During a five-year stint as a case worker with the Citizens' Advice Bureau, Richard worked extensively with people on benefits and in debt, and seems to be fired by a desire to redress the balance of power in their favour. In 1989 he joined a radical firm of solicitors in the Midlands, and started doing ground-breaking para-legal work with imprisoned poll-tax defaulters. Repeatedly challenging magistrates through the High Court, he went on successfully to sue several magistrates for unlawful imprisonment, and in so doing he believes he brought about a sharp drop in the jailing of poll-tax defaulters.
Last year, when the female prison population swelled to a record of nearly 2,000, several governors, desperate to free places by getting non-criminals out of jail, called Wise and asked him to help. "The prisons needed the space, and they were also observing that a lot of the women in for debt were assimilating the behaviour of the serious criminals they were alongside," says Wise.
The motivating factor for Wise in getting involved was the thought of the "collateral damage" that the jailing of debtors can do to dependants. When women are jailed, their children are often taken into local authority care.
The bail officer at Holloway prison in London now refers the handful of debtors who arrive at the prison every day directly to Wise. Today they fax through papers for a new inmate called Sandra (not her real name) who has been sent down for 14 days for outstanding fines for soliciting totalling nearly pounds 500.
Richard springs into action. "Every new case is important and exciting," he says. "Not because of the legal principles, but because each one of these clients has got a personal tragedy to tell."
Within minutes he has Sandra on the phone and is coaxing her life story out of her. It turns out that she is a 25-year-old single parent with three small children, all of them suffering from sickle cell anaemia and in need of weekly hospital treatment. "You'll be out by tonight," he murmurs to her before hanging up.
Bristling with indignation, Wise is operating on full throttle. "I work on a different timescale to most solicitors," he says. "If I don't get her out within six hours, I've failed."
Within minutes he has e-mailed his brother, faxed the magistrates' court that sentenced Sandra, and is on the phone to the court clerk threatening a High Court action.
Wise's methods amount to a kind of bureaucratic terrorism. He has won plenty of enemies with his take-no-prisoners tactics, including Rosemary Thomson, chairman of the Magistrates Association.
"Richard has decided that part of his career is to work with women defaulters," she says. "But men and women are equal before the law. How are we to say that we are not going to send women with young children to prison for fine default? People are responsible for their own finances. Why can't they pay?" She points out that there are "a lot of poor people who are paying up with great difficulty". Why, in that case, should anybody be let off?
Others gush praise for Wise. "He's saving the country a lot of money," says Chris Tchaikovsky of the charity Women in Prison. The cost of jailing a woman is about pounds 600 per week, a sum greater than most of the debts that people are imprisoned for. "It's not every solicitor who will work that far and go that extra mile to get women out," she says, "yet there's nothing self-important, stuffy, altruistic or smug about him."
Tchaikovsky and other campaigners object to the jailing of debtors because, they say, it criminalises the poor, punishes their children and betrays a "Dickensian" attitude towards poverty redolent of the Victorian workhouse and poor laws. But in the end, the most persuasive argument against the practise is cost. A Bill aimed at ending the jailing of debtors in all but the most extreme cases will be launched by MPs later this month. It has cross-party support and would cut the number of people jailed for debt by about 80 per cent, saving up to pounds 20m of public money each year.
Until the law is changed, Wise remains a lifeline for pressured prison governors and jailed debtors alike. Of the 360 cases he has handled in the past year and a half, only five have failed.
As Wise drives his children from the childminders' back to his office, where they will wait for him to finish some outstanding work, his mobile rings. His brother is calling with the news that magistrates have signed the bail order for Sandra's release. Happy in the knowledge that she will be back home tonight with her children, Wise will be able to relax and get stuck into the next case.