Columbo the cat ‘shows the best of British courts’

Emily Pennink, PA Old Bailey Correspondent
·6-min read

When a gigantic fluffy cat gatecrashed an Old Bailey virtual hearing, contented purrs rippled through the legal world.

Within hours, he was identified on social media as eight-month old Columbo, belonging to Naz Hussain QC, a senior criminal defence barrister.

The blue Maine Coon, named after the unassuming TV detective, has since gone on to establish his own Twitter profile with a mission to “take over the world”.

His escapade during the most severe wave of the pandemic showed the British justice system at its best, said Mr Hussain.

Ahead of the anniversary of the first lockdown, Mr Hussain told the PA news agency: “I’d settled into the kitchen for my hearing but Columbo was lurking.

“He’s actually done it before during a hearing. He jumped on to the counter and wanted to see what I’m doing.

“Previously people acted like it hadn’t happened, whereas this was a perfect combination of a judge with a very good sense of humour and a persistent cat.

Columbo the cat
Criminal barrister Naz Hussain QC outside the Old Bailey (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

“Mid-hearing I saw him stalking me, targeting my headphone cable. I tried ushering him away but he’s persistent.

“Columbo then walked on to the keyboard and on camera. The judge jokingly asked if he was my instructing solicitor, to which I said: ‘No, it’s my replacement junior.’

“Everyone laughed and, sensing stardom, Columbo just kept coming back.

“Before finishing, the judge asked if the cat had anything else to add?

“It was fun and entertaining but also showed our system at its best.

“We are working in difficult circumstances, a very serious case, but then these unexpected things happen.

“Rather than flouncing off the bench or telling me off, the judge embraced it.”

Columbo the cat
Just one mewl thing: Columbo ‘showed British justice at its best’ (Naz Hussain/PA)

On the resulting media flurry, the 45-year-old lawyer said: “It’s said there is no such thing as bad publicity. It started to go viral and my junior said ‘your cat is on the news’.

“I couldn’t believe it, here was a Radio 4 news report about my cat.

“I’m happy this small unexpected act made so many people laugh. The aftermath was surreal.”

Mr Hussain, who works out of Sheffield and 33 Bedford Row in London, said even before the pandemic struck, “systemic underinvestment” in criminal justice had threatened to undermine public faith.

But the rapid switch to virtual preliminary and pre-trial hearings has been a gamechanger for lawyers juggling cases around England and Wales.

Mr Hussain said: “We can adapt and respond. However, the Government needs to value the system.”

Despite the more relaxed atmosphere of virtual hearings, Mr Hussain said trials should retain the pomp and ceremony and dynamic of the courtroom.

“Having a relaxed atmosphere at the right time is perfectly fine. However, given the subject matter of what we deal with – criminal matters that will have serious consequences for the defendant and complainant in the case – we owe it to them to treat it with the dignity and solemnity that it deserves.

Columbo the cat
Advocat: Columbo has his own Twitter profile with a mission to ‘take over the world’ (Handout/PA)

“Wearing the wig and gown is an obvious way of showing everyone you are doing a job – that this is not me as an individual citizen saying things that could be challenging or upsetting.

“To manifest that distinction is really important.”

Throughout his career, Mr Hussain has drawn on his unconventional past experiences as a bouncer and Thai boxer, having represented England.

The son of a Sheffield steelworker, Mr Hussain grew up wanting to be Batman – to make a difference in the world. He was the first in his family to go to university.

While opportunities are improving for lawyers from non-traditional backgrounds, being seen to “do diversity” is not enough, he said.

“Increasing numbers of BAME people in the professions is, on one level, positively addressing diversity.

“But if those people went to public schools, came from families that were highly educated, went to Oxford or Cambridge, they have far more in common with the group that’s in the majority. Class is still a huge factor in our society.”

He went on: “I’ve been confused for a defendant – countless times.

“I was asked three times in court by an advocate whether I was really a QC.

Columbo the cat
Yorkshireman Naz Hussain QC says the Bar is changing (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

“It is an extremely offensive thing to say to someone. The first time, I said ‘let’s just concentrate on what we are discussing’.

“It was only after the third time I dealt with it very robustly.

“I’m not a shrinking violet and am not physically slight. If someone feels comfortable enough in their views or their ignorance to say that to me then I shudder to think what happens to those less comfortable or willing to speak up or make a stand.

“If I see it happening I have zero tolerance for it. My duty is to stand by, speak up or stand up for that person. I’ve always detested bullies.

“Yes, the profession is moving forward. There are those who hate change. Some time ago whilst still a junior, a QC tried telling me off for wearing a pink shirt.

“I replied: ‘I’m not sure what is more ridiculous, you giving me fashion advice or you thinking I’m going to take it.’

“Another QC sat nearby started clapping and said I should carry on as I was.

Columbo the cat
Training: Naz Hussain with his son Sal, who are fund-raising for Sheffield Royal Marines Cadets and the Special Boat Service Association (Naz Hussain/PA)

“The Bar is changing and making huge efforts to do so. One can never become complacent though.”

A Yorkshireman, Mr Hussain added: “I’m proud of my accent. My advice is be yourself.

“There are people who think you must speak, act or dress in a specific way. Focus on your skills and performance as they speak loudest.

“I have long hair and a beard. Clients nicknamed me Jesus. I’d say that, unlike him, I couldn’t always guarantee a miracle.”

Mr Hussain was at the Old Bailey defending Muhamed Abu, who was last week cleared of failing to alert authorities to a terror plot during the pandemic.

Outside court, the father-of-three has been in training with his 15-year-old son, who aspires to be a Royal Marine and join the UK Special Forces.

Father and son are fundraising for Sheffield Royal Marines Cadets and the Special Boat Service Association, undertaking the 15-mile “Fan Dance” march carrying 35lbs over Pen y Fan in South Wales in June.

For details visit: https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/salfandance?utm_term=Y2JQdrdk2.