Things are never lost to you; you are lost to them
February 5, 2024 – Shannon Hale

We decided to have a party in Chambers last week to give everyone a winter fillip. Digital cases, electronic communication and, hastened by COVID and transportation strikes, the mixed joys of working from home mean that our average attendance in Chambers resembles that of a rural parish celebrating Evensong. I am the Head of Chambers and even I don’t recognise at least a third of the members nowadays.

The plonk was ordered and various supermarkets raided for cheese nibbles and crisps and there was a reasonable turnout. An unusual number of older members were present. This was apparently due to their being engaged at the senior criminal court up the hill which is taking Herculean steps to clear its backlog. This court used to be famed for many things but is now chiefly admired because both the professionals and the public can still get a decent breakfast and lunch there. A junior at the bottom end of Chambers, Katie Gibbon, was being led in her first big case by Hetty Briar-Pitt whose brief retirement to look after her horses during lockdown seems to have come to an end.

I asked Katie what her judge was like. ‘Very old,’ she said. Upon discovering it was one of the youngest judges there, Her Honour Judge Hannah Blackburn, I felt correspondingly aged. ‘Very good!’ she added by way of compensation. ‘Do you come into Chambers much?’ I asked. ‘No,’ she said, ‘never if I can help it. Pete and I have everything we need.’ I wondered who ‘Pete’ was. My query was soon answered. A young man appeared at her side and held her hand. ‘Hi William,’ he said. ‘Thanks for inviting us all.’ I took the ‘all’ to mean he must be another member of chambers. I didn’t like to ask, however, just in case the confusion grew. Myles, one of our junior clerks came over and cleared matters up. ‘Sorry to interrupt, sir; Pete you’ve got your regulatory hearing tomorrow for that dodgy doctor.’ Andrew, our senior clerk, looked askance. ‘Mr Tatton to you, Myles.’ Normally I would have frowned in agreement with Andrew but since I now knew who Pete was I could afford to look paternal and benevolent.

‘So, Pete,’ I said, ‘you’re building up a regulatory practice. Well done!’ ‘Thanks, William,’ he replied, Katie and I are hoping we can both work round the Temple when they build that new fraud court in Fleet Street. Means we will see something of each other when we get married next year.’ ‘What fraud court?’ I asked. ‘I think it’s that big building site on Fleet Street,’ he said. I wondered whether this development might even prevent the Temple turning into one of those Wild West mock-up towns visited by American tourists now that the film industry has deserted them.

‘It’s even rumoured you will be able to eat there,’ said Katie. There has certainly been a sea change in the provision of food since my early days at the Bar. Then some rather unlikely Crown Courts boasted excellent eating facilities and virtually all of them had something. They still all have their kitchens, public canteens and Bar-messes but these have been half-inched for other purposes or left empty. Their demise was caused by a typical saga of British public life. First of all, they were given over to chain providers who did a roaring trade in fancy names, such as ‘Rumpole’s’ in one case, and produced a healthy diet of posters and notices. The problem was the food. Poor at best and usually worse. People naturally went elsewhere; the perfect excuse for axing them. Some few individual teams survived until recently, but the independent caterers of the past were quickly driven out and now, in most courts, there is nothing worth mentioning.

As a cursory glance at legal London tells us, some change, however sad, is unavoidable even if it means the Temple’s future as a legal centre is clearly threatened. Other changes are, however, both undesirable and entirely avoidable. The provision of decent food and beverages is a basic service when numerous people are forced to be in a building and where much work amongst professionals takes place before and after courts sit, during breaks and during lunch.

These courts were provided by the taxpayer with kitchens, restaurants and dedicated rooms for professionals both to eat and drink and work as well as proper facilities for the Judiciary. Those running the courts should not be let off the hook so easily. Hetty’s horses would never put up with it.