A common misconception about a barrister’s life is that it is full of interesting and juicy cases. It is a myth fostered by television legal dramas which concentrate into an hour or two the distilled excitement of a lengthy case in the bits between the barristers’ difficult personal lives and the quirky goings on in Chambers. The viewer does not have to watch hours of turgid footage where the height of excitement is when counsel has a rumbling stomach or someone spills a glass of water.
And yet which of us, truthfully, does not remember some legal series or another when we were young or some biography of a barrister that made our hearts leap and first drew us to the Law. Margaret Lockwood as Harriet Peterson in Justice was my awakening. And, of course, the excellent Crown Court which proved a brilliant substitute for criminal procedure classes at the Inns of Court School of Law. Then there were the biographies of Norman Birkett, Marshall Hall and F.E. Smith. How many barristers of my generation first read these?
I very much doubt when I am dead and gone that the robing rooms, assuming we still robe, will be awash with stories of my legal bons mots and legendary exchanges with fearsome judges. My generation, however, still has its legends. Perhaps they did not perceive themselves as such and maybe we do have fans amongst the young to tell our story, as we remember the colossi of old. Possibly, but I doubt it.
My own hero was a member of Gutteridge Chambers called J. W. G. St. Lawrence. His first names were James Wellington Gordon – his family having strong army connections. For reasons it took me an age to discover, he was known as Frank. It transpired that his mother and father had wanted to call their first child Frank, if a boy, and Frances, if not. However, Frank was a posthumous baby, his father being killed in action at the Battle of the Somme. The influence of Frank’s parents was sufficiently strong to override the young couple’s wishes, so James Wellington Gordon it would be. But to his mother, it was Frank.
His skills in court were equally hard to fathom. I was his junior on many occasions and there seemed to be a number of issues with his technique. First, he had only a passing knowledge of the papers. Second, his attendances were unpredictable and generally late. Third, things he pronounced as being ‘the evidence’ rarely seemed actually to have happened; at least in the trial in which I was participating. His closing speeches had little, if any, structure but were followed by a mesmerised jury who generally gave him the verdict. The judiciary were either his mates from a well-known hostelry in Fleet Street or bitter enemies who were savaged over seemingly unimportant matters such as enquiries about why he had arrived in court at midday.
‘Experts!’ he said, in a case where the expert evidence was very much against us, ‘there’s always an expert for everything nowadays’. Our client was acquitted. ‘You don’t jump the dole queue!’: a new defence for a client who had his position taken at an East End benefit office and ended up stabbing the queue jumper in the back 40 minutes later. Verdict: Guilty of Common Assault.
Frank rarely gave away his secrets, although a few pearls of wisdom were dropped at our feet. ‘No point fighting the prosecution on their own ground. Stands to reason. We wouldn’t be here if it didn’t look as though our client did it. We need to argue something quite different.’ ‘It’s about life. Most barristers know nothing about it. The jury does.’ And to a client in consultation, ‘May I give you some advice?’ ‘Yes, guv.’ ‘Shut up! Right now! And stay shut up unless and until I tell you to say something.’ This man had 12 previous convictions for violence. He was as meek as a lamb: ‘Course guv.’
I not really sure why Frank St. Lawrence came into my mind. I was watching a programme assessing the chances of Donald Trump becoming President of the United States. The commentators seemed bemused that he broke all the rules, contradicted himself, had no apparently sensible policy engagements with his rivals and yet carried vast numbers of people with him. Of course, Frank did not win all the time; but he triumphed enough to give the rest of us pause for thought.
William Byfield Gutteridge Chambers. William Byfield is the pseudonym of a senior member of the Bar. Gutteridge Chambers, and the events that happen there, are entirely fictitious.