Secret E-Diary

Law confidential?

'A secret spoken finds wings'  – Robert Jordan, The Path of Daggers 

Lawyers prate on much more about confidentiality and privilege than they do about the burden and standard of proof. In my second month of pupillage, I was standing in the back bar of historic premises then frequented by barristers and journalists in equal quantities: two professions that make such a fuss about keeping secrets seemed to be gossiping to destruction about every major case being tried in the metropolis. This chatter was punctuated with reminiscences beginning with slightly worry phrases such as ‘I remember a client I had once…’ or ‘This informant told our editor…’

I discussed it about a year later in the same premises with a group of Silks at a table which was always reserved for them and at which you only sat by invitation. One even had his name in gold lettering inscribed on the back of his chair. I was feeling very honoured to have been invited. They reassured me. ‘Chatham House Rule,’ said the named chair. ‘Applies in every Gentleman’s Club and this place. Can’t divulge a thing to anyone.’ I started to enquire what would happen if you did but received such a forbidding collective stare that I backed off the point. One elderly looking gentleman at the table with black-rimmed spectacles, who I discovered later was 32 years old, gave me additional valuable information: ‘Be very suspicious if anyone ever says Chatham House Rules! There is only one. It is in the singular. Use of the plural may raise concern.’ He then slugged back a full glass of gin with tonic and slumped in his seat.

Nevertheless, I have wondered over the years whether our clients entirely appreciate the Chatham House principle. There it is, however, living alongside all those ridiculous measures to protect a tsunami of data which cannot ultimately be protected. Might not a friend of mine at the junior Bar, Clive Eckill, have had the right idea? ‘I just tell everybody everything about myself,’ he said ‘what I earn, what tax I pay, who I lust after, all the silly things I have done. It frees you – entirely.’ It also resulted, at a much later stage, in a very favourable financial settlement for his spouse after an exceptionally acrimonious divorce, so perhaps it has limitations as a theory. I do, however, feel very sorry for those whose houses were burgled and who are castigated for not keeping their papers in a treble safe concreted under the foundations. Or those who left a briefcase on the back seat of a car for a few fatal moments whilst popping into the off-licence. Not to mention those who lose a disk at work, or a hundred and one other entirely human failures when faced with this hydra of electronic data.

We all do it. Even a high-ranking Justice is reported to have talked about some issues that might possibly surface in a case which, at the time of this entry, she will be trying very shortly; not that this seems a bar to me. I wonder whether dear Clive might not have had a point after all. Sadly, I cannot discuss it with him as he has entered something of a twilight world, having subsequently married a gym instructress from Yorkshire, and is now in sheltered accommodation.

My most toe-curling incident as a junior was going to a Crown court in west London, to defend a man in a multi-handed robbery trial. I met the learned friends, and, being not before two o’clock, we decamped to the local pub. Our prosecutor seemed a rather dour man. He later rose to high judicial office in the criminal law. However, in his case, looks were deceiving. He was just a bit shy. After half-a-pint of beer, he became hysterically funny, telling us about the eccentricities of His Honour Judge Grasmere, who was to try us. Barristers have a slight tendency to play to the gallery and seeing some old gent in the corner laughing his socks off, we became a little theatrical.

It was therefore something of a shock to find out in the early afternoon that the same old man was walking into the jury box in our courtroom. Our opponent asked for the jury panel to retire and then rose: ‘I’m sorry, your Honour, but in an unguarded moment and in a place of refreshment, we made an unfortunate reference to someone in our case and it was overheard by a putative juror.’ Judge Grasmere was much amused. ‘About the defendants?’ ‘No, your Honour.’ ‘The officer?’ ‘Not the officer.’ ‘Yourselves?’ ‘Not precisely.’ ‘Then who? Who was it?... Oh, I see.’ It was a most unhappy trial.

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.

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