In Defence of the Inns

What are the functions of the Inns of Court in the 21st Century? Robert McCracken QC presents his case

Perhaps the first and fundamental feature of the Inns of Court is that they are associations of members, and aspirant members, of a learned profession. The second is that they all have certain core facilities. These include a dining hall, library, garden, quiet courtyards and chambers for professional and residential use in a tranquil atmosphere removed from the noise and pollution of the metropolis outside.


The third is that their members, whatever their professional status, wealth or other worldly success, can enjoy in common possessions and facilities which as individuals most could not financially afford. We should not be ashamed to enjoy these civilized amenities. It is in society’s interest that people of ability should be encouraged to make the effort to join a profession in which they agree to be bound by restrictions which interfere with their own interests, but work to the common weal.

The fourth feature is that Inns encourage and provide opportunities for a social intercourse which is valuable for its own sake but also promotes high standards of ethical behaviour and exchanges of expertise. The fifth is that they bring together from all over the country (and Commonwealth) students and practitioners. They provide channels whereby the education and training of aspirant lawyers is undertaken by leading practitioners. Students mix with stars of the Bar and Bench in hall and library. The sixth feature is that much work is done on a voluntary basis, partly for generous altruistic motives, and partly in the hope of, or in recognition of the achievement, of high honour within the Inn. The seventh is that the Inns are relatively small but separate bodies. They therefore provide models for each other of good and bad both for emulation and avoidance. There are many opportunities for service, participation and influence. They demonstrate the wisdom of the adage “Small is Beautiful.”


Unique features

Each of the Inns has features which attract particular affection. The Inner Temple has one of the loveliest working libraries in the Commonwealth. Its aspect, its views, its books, their bindings, its tables and bookshelves combine to make a place both for research and quiet contemplation which surpasses that of the Codrington at All Souls. The Middle Temple has a hall with one of the finest hammer beam roofs in the kingdom. Gray’s Inn has its Walks. Lincoln’s Inn Great Hall holds magnificent dinners at which the Memorial Mess, after WW1 a junior mess, is now the senior mess of barristers. Many members will remember “taking wine” with Lord Denning at dinner. Its Members’ Common Room offers one of the best afternoon teas in London.

It is clearly not only grandees who value their Inns. One of Lincoln’s Inn most valuable possessions is a library table designed by Pugin. It was given to the Inn by a member who never took Silk nor became a Bencher. Ironically it is now reserved for the use of Benchers; that is, of course, merely to protect it from casual harm. It may indeed be the unknown, unfashionable members of an Inn who appreciate it most. Their contribution to the great mission of lawyers—the resolution of disputes without violence—is just as great as that of those who enjoy the rich rewards of a fashionable practice. But they are unlikely to be able to afford private libraries, grand residences or great gardens. The Inns provide opportunities to enjoy the good things of life to people of ability whatever their background. They make enormous efforts to facilitate admission to people from humble backgrounds. They are in themselves a great attraction to many to practice at the Bar. They provide a place in which members of the employed Bar can really feel part of the profession.


Welcome base

The common parts of an Inn provide a welcome base for practitioners who do not have the privilege of chambers within an Inn, for example those who are based on circuits or overseas such as Niblett, the great benefactor of the Inner Temple. Niblett did not even work in London. His affection for the Inner Temple was such none the less that he gave that Inn valuable properties in the Far East. For a long time his benefaction provided a students’ recreational hall.

Those who value the Inns and their amenities must, however, be ready to spring to their defence.

Robert McCracken QC is a barrister at Francis Taylor Building

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