The principle that light can be in two places at the same time is absolutely extraordinary.
November 27, 2023 – Alan Davies

The middle of the last century was an excellent time for humorous novels about the professions. Most famous was the Doctor series based on the books by (Dr) Richard Gordon, brought to life on the big screen by Dirk Bogarde, Kenneth More, Leslie Phillips, James Robertson Justice and more. They showed the pitfalls and rewards of becoming a doctor and depicted an innocent world of dilemmas and japes, in which young medics found their feet and slowly gained confidence and assurance. The Bar had its own hapless hero in Roger Thursby, brought to life by (judge) Henry Cecil in Brothers-in-Law. It too had its film version with Thursby, played by Ian Carmichael, starting out in pupillage under the hugely busy junior, Kendall Grimes. It too had a prelapsarian innocence and while John Grisham it was not, I doubt if I was the only budding barrister who would read it and feel drawn to the world it depicted.

It also scared me slightly in that Mr Grimes, followed by a gaggle of pupils and squatters, would rush to attend to one matter in court, only to leave one of his brood to hold the fort while he ran into a different courtroom to give his divided attention to another case. The young and white-wigged beginner, wholly out of his depth, would find himself suddenly on his feet in front of an impatient judge, master or registrar until Grimes came to the rescue at the eleventh hour, often to the annoyance of the said judge etc who was actually rather enjoying himself.

Trials, of course, did have the undivided attention of the instructed barrister, save for travel difficulties, loss of robes, parents being on juries and so on that peppered the book. My own pupillage, however, introduced me to a world that was entirely different. Legal aid was a great deal more generous than today and the clerk of the court taxed the barrister’s brief because the clerk had actually seen what that barrister had done in the trial. Such a notion would of course never be tolerated by the bureaucracy nowadays which aims to move the whole payment process as far away as possible from the work that was actually done.

Barristers took chances and some silks (usually the same ones) might be double-booked at the beginning or end of a trial but that could be a risky practice with the Professional Conduct Committee looming in the background. If I sound rather bitter, it is because my efforts to manage potentially clashing cases by being in two places at once were always disasters. Whereas a friend of mine, John Elsom, miraculously glided through these difficulties and doubtless took bends at 60mph on two wheels without crashing, I never ever in my career have had any success in this department. At five years’ call I concluded I wasn’t managing it properly, at ten I decided I attracted bad luck; by 15 I tried not to think about it at all but at 20 years’ call I knew I lay under a curse.

Arriving in the capacious Bar mess of a large Crown Court recently, I could see that the profession had re-entered a dark mirror-image of the world of Kendall Grimes and Roger Thursby. The criminal courts now have huge backlogs, the ability to have defendants produced at court by 9.30am in time for a conference before the court sits has all but vanished and the various agencies and experts involved in the criminal justice system have difficulty complying with any timings. The judges are under enormous pressure to manage very difficult caseloads. It is impossible to make sensible estimates of the length of long cases.

The Bar mess was busy; the conversations loud. The snatches of chatter that I overheard were different though from those before COVID: Hugh Stenson KC was explaining how he had to make two closing speeches in two trials on the same day. Jane Clews seemed to be in three trials at once and was hoping that her submission of no case to answer would at least get rid of one. Worried juniors were flying around the room trying to ensure that their leaders were going actually to be present to cross-examine crucial witnesses. If a comedy film was to be made about modern English trials, the model would have to be The Thick of It rather than Doctor At Sea, but for victims and defendants and for an increasingly disenchanted public, humour is in rather short supply.