The letter you always wanted to write
You probably don't remember knocking on our door 18 months ago. You and your colleague in your big riot van early one Friday evening in March. I can still remember the shock of having an officer standing in the doorway telling me you had my son sitting in the back of the van and could you come in.
I was in end of the working week mode, you could probably tell. Silly apron on, glass of wine in hand, fresh from eating a takeaway tea. All was well in our world and, frankly, I would have been less surprised if ET had knocked on our door.
We listened with mounting trepidation as you explained that our son K had been picked up after he had run off when he and a friend had seen your van.
You had been on the lookout for car thieves and were suspicious when the two teenagers sprinted away. The reason for their flight was clear when they were stopped. In their possession was a half empty bag of cannabis. Both of them as high as kites about to, in your words "chuck a whitey".
You had a range of options. In those few minutes you had the power to seriously affect our son's life. You must have been in a similar position many times. Thankfully, you decided to return him to us with a warning. You didn't judge us or pass any comment about our parenting. Perhaps you could see or sense the shame and guilt radiating off us, the normality of our Friday evening kicked away from underneath us.
You simply gave us answers to a series of questions that I imagine you must have asked dozens of times at secondary schools to teachers and concerned parents. Did we know what cannabis smelt like, looked like? Did we know how to tell if someone was "under the influence"? Were we aware of the penalties for possession? Did we need information about who to contact if we needed help and advice?
Your colleague then brought our son to the door, explaining that he was worried about our reaction.
White faced, pupils dilated, he slunk upstairs to the bathroom where we could hear him being violently sick. You gave us your name and badge number, told us to get in touch if we wanted K spoken to further. We said we would deal with it.
K has moderated his risk-taking behaviour. Two years on he is still growing and learning, getting things right and occasionally getting things wrong. Because of your empathy, understanding and ability to exercise discretion he has a chance grow up without a serious mark against him on his record. Your treatment of him has helped him form positive views of the police. He knows the risks he ran and how the consequences could have affected him.
Our son recently applied for and got a job with a national retailer. He applied for and now has a place at university. We talked about what happened that Friday as he filled in the forms for these life-changing events. A light-bulb moment for him.
As the years go on, I am sure he will appreciate your actions that night more and more. I doubt, however, that his appreciation will ever be as great as ours. Once again, thank you.
The human rights lawyer and director of the legal charity Reprieve talks about lessons learned from his parents and his campaign against capital punishment
I was brought up in the lap of luxury when my family were nouveau riche on the 365-acre Cheveley Park Stud in Newmarket. My father's father had inherited it from a Colonel Sherwood, who died without family. My family became nouveau pauvre in 1972 when the stud went bankrupt. My father was bipolar, and as a consequence overstretched the business. It was very difficult for my mother and aunt. He blamed them. My parents divorced but my mother continued to look out for my father. She said, "How can I abandon him – he's the father of my three darling children." She's a saint.
My father taught me many lessons – intentional and inadvertent. He was a lateral thinker, and when I was 15 or 16 he gave me a badge saying, "Question authority". He was very good at spotting the Flat Earth aspects of life.
I was 18 when I went to America. I joyfully told Clare College, Cambridge, I didn't want to come and took up a scholarship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (wherever that was!). Both my siblings went to Australia. Why did we all go abroad? I suspect one factor was that while I loved my father, his illness could make things very difficult.
My father once visited me in the US. Cross with me about something, he went to see the state governor and told him that not only should my client be executed, but so should I. When I was seven, my father put me on his knee and gave me £200 and told me it was time to rent a place and fend for myself. My mother took the money away and put me to bed.
My mother is wonderful. She taught me – I hope – a sense of decency, and to be unafraid. At the age of 16 in 1943, having done well in her French O-level, she and a friend went from Northampton to the Foreign Office in London and volunteered to parachute into France as spies. The nice man at the FO gave them a cup of tea and sent them home.
I met my wife when she came over to America (from the UK) as a volunteer at the Louisiana Capital Assistance Centre, which I was running. We represented 171 capital cases in New Orleans and proved innocence in 126 of them.
I stayed in America for 26 years. We came home in 2004 because our parents were getting on. We now have a five-year-old son, Wilf, product of our ninth IVF cycle. I always wanted to be a parent. IVF can be absolutely horrible, but Wilf is 100% worthwhile.
Wilf comes first 98% of the time. One of the things about working on capital cases all your life is that you keep things in proportion. Unless you've got an execution date, it can damn well wait until Wilf has had his bedtime story. If there is an execution date, Wilf will understand.
I always tell him where I am going so he knows what I do at some level. He builds Lego planes to break the men out of Guantánamo. I've been working on Guantánamo cases since the day it opened and 52% of the remaining 166 detainees have been cleared for release for at least six years so it's about time Wilf did bust them out. He was born on Bastille Day when they burned the prisons down – entirely appropriate.
Clive Stafford Smith's latest book, Injustice: Life and Death in the Courtrooms of America (Vintage, £9.99), is out now
Even if you show show them evidence to the contrary, they will still believe they are right
I have watched four children grow now and I am still left with a mystery – what is the nature of childhood? What makes children different? I have written before about the elusive quality of innocence: how it, although we cannot define it, is the quintessence of the child's nature. But there are other things that strike me as remarkable and intriguing about the psyche of the child – for instance, an irrationally exuberant and resilient sense of certainty.
Last weekend, I was taking three of my children to the cinema. As we left the house, three of us turned right out the gate. Louise, seven, my youngest, turned left. We live halfway between an overground and an underground station, and the cinema was best connected by the former. Louise was heading for the latter. We all called her back, but she insisted she knew the right station. The two elder children headed off for the overground, and I was left to explain to her that the Bakerloo Line was not an ideal mode of transport for getting to Shepherd's Bush. She was having none of it.
Eventually, I had to frogmarch her to the other station. When she got there, she (presumably) recognised that she was mistaken, but there was no cognitive dissonance whatsoever. This was simply a new reality that in no way negated her previous opinion.
I asked her if she really thought she knew better than adults did. She was in no doubt that she did. And it struck me that this same certainty – whether it be about the existence of fairies or the correct way to use a knife and fork – is a potent tool for psychological survival.
The phenomenon of irrational certainty in children interests me because we tend to believe that children are essentially porous, that they soak up knowledge from the outside world like a sponge in a fairly undiscerning way. If we can agree on nothing else about children, they are open to suggestion, and thus by imparting rational information they acquire a realistic view of the world.
But the Louise-ian interpretation of the child's mind suggests something different. It's as if childhood belief is a very hard shell that is constantly cracking and being remade, but the memory of the crack is somehow immediately obliterated so that the child can once again immediately have access to total faith in whatever new (and possibly crazy) belief scheme is to be adopted next.
It seems that at some level there is a fundamental distrust of the information that comes from outside sources. My children have all at various times believed that it is possible for there to be monsters under the bed, that sharks might attack them in a swimming pool, and that the house might be blown away in a storm. The reassurance of adults makes little difference – the fear remains. In the end, children give their imaginations greater credence than so-called objective information.
I am tempted to speculate that it is a habit we never grow out of. No one ever admits they are wrong, even when faced with the starkest evidence to the contrary. This phenomenon clearly has its roots in childhood, but it is not confined to children.
When analysis of the Mayan calendar "revealed" that the end of the world was due on 12 December 2012, none of the believers in the coming apocalypse simply admitted they had been wrong come the morning of 13 December. They had merely miscalculated, or that there had been a slight mistranslation of the prophecies.
We believe what we decide to believe, even if those beliefs can hurt us or make us uncomfortable. We insist on our own reality. In that sense we are all Louise, stamping on the pavement, insisting that our way is the right way, whatever anybody else says to the contrary and while the real journey is taking place somewhere else.
He'd love to spend time with the girls but they rarely reply to his texts – and there's no agreed access as there's no divorce yet
My partner separated from his wife three years ago. It was an acrimonious split and he was very much held accountable for the demise of the marriage. He has two teenage daughters who live with their mother. He is a loving father and would really like to spend more time with his children. However, there is no arrangement in place for regular contact, his wife does little to facilitate access and he is left hoping they will respond to his texts, which they often don't.
Inevitably, I'm left feeling partly responsible for this situation, which I find heartbreaking and frustrating. I don't live with my partner. I had hoped this would enable him to maintain relationships with his daughters more easily, but it simply isn't happening. He had started divorce proceedings, but his wife refused to sign anything or attend mediation.
She has recently got a very high-paying job, but my partner still gives her well over the recommended Child Support Agency guidelines in financial support for the two daughters, one of whom is about to leave for university. He could go through the courts, but that is expensive and may damage relationships even further. I don't know how to help him and sometimes I don't know how to help myself. I just wish some of these issues could be resolved.
T, via email
Things can be resolved, but it's going to take some work on the part of your partner and his wife.
I spoke to Katherine Rayden, a partner at Rayden, solicitors and family law specialists, not because I think legal intervention is necessary yet – although it may be helpful later – but because sometimes in the murky waters of a post-separation relationship, it can help to know where the parameters lie.
"When a [married] couple split up," explains Rayden, "they will often consider that one person was to blame. In this country, we have a fault-based divorce system which encourages this perception but this view should not have any weight in relation to the financial matters or the children. The last resort would be for your partner to make an application to the court. This is rightly considered to be the last resort but is nevertheless an option that should be used if necessary. A formal solicitor's letter should encourage a dialogue between the parents, and the mother can explain why the children are having so little contact with their father."
You see, it has not been officially decided that the children should live with their mother, either solely or for what length of time. Only a court can decide that and make it legally binding (and even then it can be reassessed after a period of time, or when it's no longer in a child's best interest). What usually happens, as Rayden explained to me, is that a couple will decide between them what works best.
At some point, your partner and his ex-wife must have a conversation about it. If he wants things to change then he needs to either talk to her or, if that's not possible, send a solicitor's letter so that there's a record of what's been asked for/said.
If she doesn't agree, then she has to respond and explain why he can't see his children X times a week. If they can't sort it out between themselves or via solicitors, then court is the only other option.
It's great that your partner is paying towards their upkeep. But I think he needs to do more if he wants to spend time with them rather than just send them texts (important though that direct communication also is). It's really important for your partner to be seen to "fight" to see his children, even if he doesn't get as much access to them as he'd like, and even if they appear not to be bothered just now. It may matter to them later.
I think it's also great that you are so concerned about his relationship with his children, but don't put your life on hold too much in case his children might come and stay with him or not. All adult relationships come with some baggage but how heavy that baggage becomes depends on how much you want to be in the partnership.
If you want to live with this man, discuss this. I would be wary if at any point he cites the loose ends of his past relationship as the reason he can't commit to you.