Q I am a criminal practitioner of eight years’ call. I spend most of my time in the magistrates’ court in London doing shoplifting cases and other petty theft, criminal damage or possession of cannabis, with the occasional trip to the Crown court to do more or less the same kind of work. This barely pays my travelling and chambers’ expenses, especially as most of my clients seem to plead guilty and I rarely get a contested Crown court trial. I feel that I did not get a first in law from Trinity in order to waste my life in Woolwich and Uxbridge. Can Uncle Julian give me any advice, both for the immediate and longer terms?
A You do not say whether you got your first from Trinity, Oxford or from Trinity, Cambridge. I am assuming that it was Trinity, Cambridge, because had you obtained a first from Trinity, Oxford, you would undoubtedly have been a tenant in one of the fashionable Human Rights or Public Law chambers and, by now, enjoying a vast income. But your predicament is, I fear, a very common one at the criminal Bar, so my answer is a little fuller than usual. Uncle Julian’s advice for the immediate future is as follows. In 2009, none of your clients are to plead guilty. It is a complete myth that pleading guilty in the magistrates’ courts does you any good. On the contrary, if you plead guilty, the court is sure that you are guilty and will give your client a harsh sentence. If on the other hand you plead not guilty, anything can happen in the trial (witnesses often don’t turn up for the inevitably adjourned hearing). Even if your client is convicted, the magistrates will feel a bit embarrassed (not being hardened professional judges) and they will reflect this embarrassment and also their unease and doubt about your client’s guilt anyway, in their lenient sentence. Except for the most serious crime in the Crown court (which you are not doing), the position, though for different reasons, is exactly the same there. You are supposed to get 33% off your sentence if you plead guilty, as compared to what your client would have received had he been convicted after a trial. Do you believe that? Does anybody believe that? On the other hand, you are not supposed to get a higher sentence for pleading not guilty, which is your right. Even at Trinity, Cambridge, I do not suppose you were taught how to hold two contradictory beliefs, simultaneously. Long gone are the days when a timely plea on a Friday, so the judge could go home early, saved your client from prison. A custodial sentence in fact now depends only upon the crime, not the plea, and, of course, upon whether there is any space in prison. Uncle Julian’s advice for the longer term is equally simple. You must position yourself as a specialist in a field where the work is going to expand hugely in the next few years. My recommendation is public order offences. An article in the New Law Journal entitled Why Looting by the Poor is their Human Right would be a good start. Uncle Julian has sent you a draft.
Q At my chambers’ Christmas dinner the seating allocation was done at random and although I am only a pupil, I found myself sitting next to a very attractive lady of about my age from Brazil and we got on really well. Indeed, so well that she gave me her mobile number and we have made a date for lunch in the New Year. Afterwards and to my dismay, I discovered that she is the new (third) wife of my Head of Chambers. What should I do? I am afraid that, if matters progress as I would like, this could affect my prospects of a tenancy.
A There is no fool like an old fool and if your Head of Chambers allows his much younger wife to sit next to a clever man of her own age, he has only himself to blame. Remember men fall in love through their eyes, but women fall in love through their ears. So definitely take her to lunch (somewhere discreet obviously). The only things in life you will regret are the things you did not do. But be cool about this and concentrate upon what you both really want. She wants a British passport (she is almost there, but not quite) and you want a tenancy in chambers (you are almost there, but not quite). So over lunch agree a deal. When she has her passport and you have a tenancy, true love will blossom. Until then, stay platonic.
Q What further shocks and troubles for the Bar does Uncle Julian think are coming in 2009?
A Uncle Julian is not a soothsayer and can only observe what is and not what is to come. But it happens that our new Chairman is known to me and there is no tougher or shrewder man at the Bar. He is also, by virtue of his character and seniority, immune to considerations of personal ambition. So the profession continues to be in good hands.
Julian Malins QC