In the "couldn't make it up" world of modern celebrity culture, and amid growing public concern about the apparent excesses enjoyed by today's rich and famous, Nick Freeman is not, it is safe to say, a universally popular man.
A smooth-talking lawyer, whose client base might have come straight from the pages of Who's Who (or at least Heat magazine), Freeman has achieved his own form of superstardom, defending the likes of David Beckham, Matthew Vaughn and the underwear model Caprice. Such has been his success in securing acquittals – mostly from motoring charges, and often on the slenderest of grounds – that the media have christened him Mr Loophole.
To the wider public, who quite understandably dislike the slightest appearance of rich and famous people getting special dispensation before the eyes of the law, Freeman seems designed to rankle. Health and safety campaigners have spent much of the past decade criticising his methods and his attitude towards the finer points of the legal system. Newspaper profiles have described him as a "public menace".
Two weeks ago, Freeman was again courting controversy after he decided to trademark his nickname to stop other motoring lawyers advertising themselves, as one did, as "your local Mr Loophole". The affair, which underlined the extent to which Freeman has entered the national consciousness, also emphasised the extraordinary value of his professional reputation; indeed, he must be one of the only lawyers in the country to be represented by a PR firm, which he hired last year.
So can a man renowned for his ability to keep alleged drink-drivers and speeding motorists on the road possibly be likeable? It's easy and tempting, of course, to assume that he's a nasty piece of work: tainted by association with allegedly reckless, frequently vulgar and fabulously wealthy people who stand accused of endangering themselves and others in flashy cars with top speeds of 300mph.
That said, visiting Nick Freeman's Cheshire home by public transport is enough to help you see where his clients are coming from. A return ticket from London to Stockport costs £230. In standard class, the train is cramped, crowded, smelly and could only go slower if it were dead. At Stockport station, it's another sharp pain in the wallet to the tune of an £80 return taxi ride to the village of Mere, a Footballers' Wives-style enclave on a dual carriageway near the M6. So that's £310 in total, for a simple trip to the North-west.
By the time you arrive at Freeman's enormous house, and travel down his sweeping drive, past many shiny and expensive cars, you can be forgiven for casting envy aside. Is it any wonder, the weary victim of Britain's creaking public transport infrastructure might ask, that stupidly wealthy people are willing to open their chequebooks to someone who offers a sporting chance of saving their beloved driving licence?
"I'm perfectly comfortable with what I do," says Freeman, welcoming me into his home. "I understand other people's arguments against what I do and I hope they understand my arguments."
Actually, Freeman's home isn't half as large as those his celebrity clients might covet. His neighbours include some of the wealthiest people in Britain (Mere is a short commute from Manchester, and boasts a posh golf club) and the area contains a number of mock-Tudor monstrosities. However, the worst you could say of the Loophole residence is that it's a bit bland.
Freeman sips Earl Grey tea in his neat conservatory, which has a view across to a lake at the bottom of his back garden. The kitchen is adorned by a lot of Valentine's Day cards and by his highly polished and lovely wife, Stephanie, a former model. I want hair like Stephanie's. It is expensively highlighted and swishes around in a winning way.
Freeman, wiry and muscular like a featherweight boxer, is wearing a striped shirt and some jeans that could have come straight from a Boden catalogue. The most remarkable thing about him is his enormous shoes. They're huge: great big black suede loafer boats on the end of his legs, with thick black rubber soles, like he's tied a pair of tyres to his feet.
"I absolutely don't think there's anything wrong with what I do," he continues, calmly. "In fact I think I am providing a useful service." Everyone, he argues, has a right to a competent defence lawyer.
It was the police who started calling Freeman "Mr Loophole", so brilliant was he at getting acquittals on the basis of technicalities that seemed minor but were devastating to the prosecution. He spent two years in the early part of his career prosecuting on behalf of Greater Manchester Police, and many of his victories are thanks to some failure of police procedure.
"People are always making mistakes. They are very sloppy," he says of his technique. "People make critical mistakes that seem to go unnoticed right through the system, and if everyone did their job properly there would be far fewer acquittals. If you're acquitted, it's the judge or the three magistrates who will hear both sides of an argument and decide one way or the other. If my client is found not guilty, am I supposed to stand up and say, 'I'm terribly sorry, sir, but actually please convict my client'?"
Yes, but aren't people who speed and drive when they are drunk just ticking time-bombs? How long before they kill someone? If they are constantly let off, how does that teach them anything about driving responsibly?
"I don't know if any of my clients has gone on to kill someone or put them in hospital. I don't know, and is it anything to do with me? But I don't think I've ever got an acquittal and then gone on to defend that same person for causing a fatal accident."
Freeman smiles all the time. Grin, grin, grin, he goes, just this side of cheesy. And if it's not a real smile (one that fades off the face like a sunset rather than snaps off like a light), then he's a very good actor.
Show most people a lawyer prepared to trademark his nickname – particularly when it is intended to be critical – and they'll tell you he's a joker. But Mr Loophole is deadly serious about protecting his professional reputation.
"I wouldn't have done it had it not been necessary," he says. There were other law firms using the name "Mr Loophole" and even using his picture on their websites, he says, and benefiting from his track record of spectacular acquittals. He had worked long and hard at his career, and wasn't prepared to let that pass.
"I remember my first drink-driving case," Freeman recalls. "I was looking at the legal books and thinking that it was a fantastic area because there's so much law involved. In those days, unless the police had got it absolutely right, it was the fact that there was so much law in it that was fatal to the prosecution."
Being based in Manchester, he happened to defend a Manchester United board member, who recommended him to his friend, Sir Alex Ferguson, the United manager. The trial, in 1999, hit the headlines – as it always would with such a famous defendant. But it had the added spin that Freeman argued successfully that Sir Alex was driving on the hard shoulder of the motorway because he needed the loo. After that, new clients came thick and fast: hey, once one celebrity has got something, they all want it!
Soon, Freeman had got David Beckham off a speeding charge by arguing duress of circumstance (that is, that Beckham was being chased by paparazzi) in an appeal hearing in front of a judge and two magistrates. He wasn't even the one who was supposed to appear in court, it was meant to be a barrister – but Beckham's agent wanted Freeman to do it.
Then he saved the footballer Dwight Yorke from a driving ban by arguing that the police hadn't correctly used the speed gun with which they measured Yorke's Mercedes CL500 doing 85mph in a 70mph zone. He also got the TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson off a charge of failing to name the driver on a speeding ticket (because the company that had loaned Clarkson the car, Alfa Romeo, only had details of who the car was loaned to, not who the driver was). Dean Gaffney, who used to play Robbie in EastEnders, got off his speeding charge of allegedly doing 131mph on the M40 because one of the officers involved in the case didn't turn up to the hearing.
We could go on like this for a long time. Perhaps the finest Freeman acquittal came when he was defending the wayward snooker champ Ronnie O'Sullivan. In 2001, O'Sullivan was up in front of Stratford Crown Court for failing to provide a blood sample for testing after he was suspected of drink-driving. During the trial, Freeman noticed that one of the magistrates, William Rolstone, had winked at a court reporter. He asked Rolstone if he had, and Rolstone replied: "No. Why would I wink at somebody? Do you think I'm gay or something?"
In the end, Freeman won the case by arguing that O'Sullivan's depression made him too stressed to urinate, but noticing the wink between the magistrate and the reporter very nearly got the case thrown out. It's his attention to details like that, he says, that makes him good at his job. "My wife gave me a Valentine's card, and on the front it said, 'Here are three words every woman wants to hear on Valentine's Day... Here's my chocolates.'" And I said, "That's not three words, that's four."
Freeman was born in 1956, the first of three sons, to an Orthodox Jewish couple from Nottingham. His father, who died a few years ago, owned a shop selling "ladies' gear" in the town. His mother, who is re-marrying this year at 76, was a housewife.
Despite looking and living like the epithet of new money, he went to the public school Uppingham, where his father had been and where his children are now. Does he get a discount? "Yeah, right," he says. "I get discounted upwards." At Uppingham, Freeman took his A-levels a year early. His exam results weren't all he hoped for, so he applied to study law at Trent Polytechnic in Nottingham. He thought at times about giving it up, he admits. And then, when he won an advocacy competition, he discovered how good he was at arguing and thinking on his feet.
"I knew I wanted to be a lawyer from when I was very young," he says. "I remember a lawyer friend of my parents came to our house once – I was about nine or 10 – and made a point that I didn't agree with and we had a long discussion, an argument, about it. It was great. Arguing is something I like doing, and I'm good at it. I mean, I don't like arguing with people in the street, I like it in the proper setting with rules, otherwise there's no point."
Freeman qualified as a criminal solicitor in 1981 and has appeared in court almost every day since then. He has "higher rights", which means that he can stand up in court and talk, as if he were a barrister. He set up his own law firm in 1999.
In the beginning, the motoring law work wasn't nearly such a big deal; it only "mushroomed" later. Now he runs a website, keepondriving.co.uk, which is a tangential business to his law practice. The website offers specialist legal advice to those accused of any motoring offence. It's all very techno-savvy for a man who, until a fortnight ago, had never sent an email.
"I don't have a computer in my office," he says. "I like to talk and I like to think and I've never found the need for a computer. If I need a point of law I'll go to my books and look it up. If I need to look at a whole case, I'll ask my secretary to get it for me."
He wins cases by thinking about them all the time rather than poking about on a computer. "It goes over and over in my mind, when I'm driving, or playing golf, or walking with my dogs. I used to play a lot of chess at school. Our maths master was a grandmaster, and one morning he played 17 of us. Out of the 17, only two won. I was one of them. It's a great game, and brilliant for the mind because it makes you think calmly. It makes you think, 'If I do this, what are the consequences?' And that's how you plan a case; it's like being a general in a war, planning out your battle."
Outside the office, he still plays chess sometimes with his children, but it's rounds of golf at the nearby country club (a favourite haunt of real-life Cheshire wives) that are his main recreation. He doesn't play any card games, never gambles and hardly drinks; he doesn't read novels, only law books. His vice is Coronation Street. "I'm an avid Corrie fan, which is terrible. I've got a circle of mates, all about the same age as me – all reasonably intelligent, successful guys – and there we are, all glued to it whenever it's on, not taking phone calls."
He used to like Dallas, too, and he was a fan of JR: "There was something incredibly appealing about his naughty charm." But he says he hates Big Brother and I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!.
Unsurprisingly, what with his job and all those cars in the drive, Freeman is no stranger to the temptations of the motorist. There is a strong feeling that Freeman (like his former client and notorious petrolhead Jeremy Clarkson) believes that it is an Englishman's right to roar up and down motorways a lot in big cars.
He can't fly because it makes him so sick (when he flew on his honeymoon, he was taken off the aeroplane on a stretcher), so when the family goes on holiday they pile into one of their big cars and drive to the South of France, with Freeman happy to drive 1,000 miles in a day. In fact, he gets a gleam in his eye when he talks about cars, and he confesses to reading a lot of car magazines. He just loves them, he says. He might spend three or four hours a day in his car (because who would be bonkers enough to cough up £230 to get the train?) driving to and from hearings and trials, and he uses his car like another office.
As many car enthusiasts do, he argues that roads aren't unsafe because people speed, but because people aren't paying attention. "I think motorists should be more educated and perhaps there should be more driving tests, one every 10 years perhaps. I don't think speed cameras are a bad thing in themselves, but you could reduce them and replace them with more police. The bête noire of people who do a massive mileage, like me, are people who sit on the motorway, maybe in the middle lane when there's nothing on the nearside or the outside lane and when there's nothing in the middle – they're never prosecuted for it. Then there are people who drive at 30 or 35mph in a 60mph zone. In my mind, they should be prosecuted for it for not having reasonable consideration for other road users."
Freeman might argue the moral question of defending motorists by saying that everyone is entitled to a defence but, on finding out that he would not defend a paedophile or someone who was cruel to animals, this argument wobbles.
"I know it's totally hypocritical because I argue that everyone is entitled to a defence. But similarly, as a lawyer I have discretion as to whether I want to defend people who have done certain things. It's a personal decision and it's full of contradictions." So, at one and the same time, the law has nothing to do with morality and everything to do with it? All this makes me think that Freeman believes people who speed and drink-drive are all right, but dog stranglers are not.
Perhaps one of the reasons why Freeman is so un-squirmy about this discrepancy is that he is a God man – really quite a passionate one. "Do you believe in God?" I ask. "Yes," he says immediately. No "ummm" or "errr" or pauses or anything. Just bang, "Yes." He fasts on Yom Kippur and tries not to eat bread over Pesach and goes to synagogue about twice a year. Stephanie is not Jewish. They talked about her converting, but in the end decided against it. "I apologise if I'm saying the wrong thing, but you're either born Jewish or not. [Converting] is a bit like painting a white man black and saying he's a black man."
He also eats bacon. "It's all totally hypocritical," he says again, merrily, like it's no big deal. "But you just do what you feel is right. For me, religion is all about the sort or person you are and how you live your life. You're either born spiritual or you're not and I happen to be and there's nothing you can do about it. You can't fight it; it's like a conscience all the time sitting on your shoulder, saying, 'No, you can't do that, or that. You should do that, that's good.'"
While on the subject of being good, Freeman takes on pro bono work, most recently in the case of Julie Lake. Lake slapped a boy who had been vandalising a war memorial, and now stands accused of assault. "I can't say much about it, but I read about her case and wanted to help," Freeman says. "Talking more generally now, and not about the case, I think there is a massive problem in this country with youngsters on the street misbehaving – every day you read that someone's been stabbed or murdered. I sympathised with her predicament and offered her my services."
The only grey cloud in Freeman's otherwise clear blue skies is a pending court case against a member of his motoring legal advice team at keepondriving.co.uk. In 2006, Freeman was arrested on suspicion of conspiring to pervert the course of justice, but was never charged. However, the managing director of the website, Trevor Howarth, who is not a solicitor, was charged in May last year with perverting the course of justice. Freeman won't say anything about it, as the case against him is ongoing.
A Staffordshire bull terrier called Rocco wanders into the conservatory. I'm not sure about Staffs (just between you and me), but he seems a sweet dog and when he grasps my forearm in his drooling jaws he doesn't bite down. Much. I mean, he doesn't leave any marks. At least, he doesn't actually break the skin.
Then Rocco farts. It's just a little squeaky dog fart, but it stinks. And Freeman thinks this is really, seriously funny. I mean, he almost dies laughing, slapping his thighs with his hands, going red and rocking back and forwards in his chair. He cuddles the stinking hound and gazes into its eyes – it gazes adoringly back. "We love each other," Freeman says. "Did you know that the Kennel Club rates Staffs as being the second-best type of dog to have as a pet? They've just got an unfairly bad reputation." Freeman must know just how they feel.
In the loop: Freeman's greatest acquittals... and one that got away
Name: Lee Ryan
Charge: The former singer with the boy band Blue was accused of assaulting two celebrity snappers, and breaking their cameras, after "lashing out" when they photographed him leaving the 10 Rooms nightclub in the West End with a 23-year-old brunette he'd met inside.
Plea: Ryan's claim of self-defence was enough to see off the assault charge. He was, however, forced to pay £500 compensation to the paparazzi for criminal damage to their equipment.
Name: David Beckham
Charge: "Goldenballs" was banned from driving in December 1999 after his Ferrari was caught in a police trap doing 76mph along a 50mph stretch of the A34 near Cheadle.
Plea: The footballer's conviction was later overturned during an appeal hearing, where Freeman argued that Beckham was being chased by the paparazzi.
Name: Dean Gaffney
Charge: The former EastEnders actor was accused of doing a whopping 131mph on the M40 in Warwickshire in June 2006. If convicted, he faced a potential jail sentence.
Plea: Freeman noticed that a police officer in the case had failed to turn up at court – thereby making the prosecution case flawed.
Name: Sir Alex Ferguson
Charge: In October 1999, the Manchester United manager was prosecuted for avoiding a traffic jam by driving his BMW along the hard shoulder of the M602 in Eccles, Greater Manchester.
Plea: Freeman argued that Sir Alex was using the hard shoulder because of an emergency: he was suffering from diarrhoea and needed to reach a toilet.
Name: Colin Montgomerie
Charge: The roly-poly golfer appeared before Staines magistrates in September 2004 after being accused of driving his Mercedes at 96mph down the A3 near his Surrey home.
Plea: After the officer who had stopped "Monty" failed to appear in court, Freeman argued that the prosecution had failed properly to prove that his client had been driving the vehicle.
Name: Matthew Vaughn
Charge: In December 2005, the film-director husband of supermodel Claudia Schiffer was accused of driving at 95mph on the M11 in Essex.
Plea: Freeman argued that the case against Vaughn was flawed, due to a mistake in police procedure.
Name: Dwight Yorke
Charge: In January this year, the boulevardier and footballer faced a speeding ban after being accused of doing 85mph in a 70mph zone.
Plea: Yorke had refused to sign police documentation at the time of the incident, disagreeing with the speed gun's reading. In court, Freeman successfully argued that the speed gun hadn't been used under the right conditions.
Name: Ronnie O'Sullivan
Charge: Drink-driving. In December 2001, the snooker champ was accused of using his Porsche to race two women along Stratford High Street, east London, at 2am. He'd failed three breath tests, refused a blood test (citing a phobia of needles) and been unable to provide a urine sample.
Plea: Freeman successfully argued that O'Sullivan had been unable to give a urine sample because his depression made him too stressed to urinate.
Name: Wayne Rooney
Charge: Aged just 18, the England striker had been convicted, in his absence, of driving without insurance, failing to produce an insurance certificate, and failing to produce his licence when cops pulled over his BMW in Liverpool on 6 May 2004.
Plea: All three convictions were overturned due to an "administrative error". Freeman argued that his law firm had sent a fax requesting an adjournment of the original case but the court had not bundled it together with the papers in time for the original hearing.
Name: Caprice Bourret
Charge: The former underwear model was found to be one-and-a-half times over the drink-drive limit, after being stopped in London after having drunk two bottles of red wine.
Plea: Freeman argued that the breathalyser reading had been distorted by antibiotics that Bourret was taking for the bladder infection cystitis. It didn't work: she was banned from driving for a year and ordered to pay a fine of £2,500.