Law: Jailing the Ambridge One: Roger Ede, responsible for putting a radio character behind bars, talks to Fiona Bawdon

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The Independent Online
The man responsible for putting The Archers' Susan Carter behind bars is not the hard-line trial judge, or even a sensation-hungry scriptwriter, but a mild-mannered Law Society official. Were it not for Roger Ede - acting in his role as legal adviser to the radio programme - the 'Ambridge One' would have spent Christmas with her family, instead of serving a six-month prison sentence.

Programme editor Vanessa Whitburn confirms that Susan was all set for a community service order - after being caught shielding her brother from the police - until Mr Ede intervened. 'He drew me to one side and said that, given the seriousness of the case, we could send her to prison,' she says.

Ms Whitburn was, she says, 'as shocked as the next person' that a mother of two, of upstanding character, could go to jail for a first offence. Once the idea had been planted, however, Ms Whitburn realised it would make 'superb drama' and Susan's fate was sealed.

Mr Ede - who is secretary to the Law Society's criminal law committee - is an unlikely villain. He admits to being 'very surprised' at the ensuing public outcry. 'I didn't expect that something written fairly hurriedly would be examined under a microscope. Quite literally, the judge's sentencing speech was written between Kennington and Oval tube stations.'

As a former criminal defence solicitor, Mr Ede is now in the curious position of having to defend himself. Even more uncomfortably, he is having to defend a sentence which even the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, has condemned as too harsh.

Mr Ede, however, claims it shows that the Home Secretary is out of touch with what is going on in his own courts. He is alarmed that Mr Howard should be calling for more people to be sent to prison when he seems to be unaware of the kind of people already being incarcerated under the existing system.

'Having spent 13 years doing criminal defence work in London, I can think of clients of mine with children younger than Susan's who were sent to prison for shoplifting just before Christmas,' says Mr Ede. Indeed, at the height of the furore, two cases similar to Susan's situation came to light, suggesting that Ambridge may, after all, be closer to reality than the Home Secretary's version of events.

A woman with two children, aged four and seven, was released after a nine-month sentence (originally 18 months, but reduced on appeal) for fiddling the PAYE payments at the nursing home she ran; and a young solicitor's clerk was jailed for a year after she pleaded guilty to helping two prisoners on the run from police. In this case, the trial judge said: 'Those who help serious criminals who have escaped deserve serious punishment.' When questioned by police about their whereabouts, she had lied 'deliberately and repeatedly'.

Just like Susan, in fact. Susan denied to the police having had any contact with her brother (after he raided the Ambridge post office and threatened several Archer characters with a shotgun). Over the following six months, she allowed him to visit her house, and on one occasion to stay overnight; she helped him dye his hair and supplied clothes, money and his passport.

It was, says Mr Ede, a serious offence. Despite this, he adds that Susan would have got off more lightly, had it not been for Mr Howard's 'prison works' speech at the Conservative Party conference. 'The trial judge would argue it was a deterrent sentence. He exactly caught the mood of the moment.'

It is a sentencing mood which Mr Ede, his colleagues at the Law Society and many other legal bodies would like to see changed. He says: 'I would question whether prison does act as a deterrent. People invariably come out worse than when they went in.' Of course, that won't happen to Susan, he adds hastily.

Although Mr Ede doesn't go as far as claiming that his intention all along was to stimulate a debate on sentencing policy - 'let's just say I wasn't unaware of the dramatic potential' - he does hope the public interest generated may lead to long-term changes. 'A debate about anonymous people being sent to prison is treated in quite a different way to when it's someone you know,' he says. 'We're saying to the listeners: this can happen to someone like Susan - and what's the point?'

Mr Ede's disclaimer has not, however, cut much ice among his Law Society colleagues. 'I think the jury is still out on me,' he admits. 'Free Susan Carter' posters have started to appear in the society offices, and a member of staff in the president's office said: 'We think it's appalling. I nearly went to picket our legal practice department.'

The president, Rodger Pannone, was more circumspect. 'I'm afraid I couldn't possibly comment as I'm still winding up the estate of Grace Archer.' Mr Ede admits to some misgivings. 'As an Archers fan for 20 years, I do feel sorry for Susan.' Does he feel guilty? 'Not guilt exactly, but I do wish it hadn't had to happen.'

(Photograph omitted)

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