We had a day off today in a grindingly long trial. We were profoundly relieved to hear that a juror had some gastric upset. ‘Not too severe, we hope?’ asked prosecuting counsel of the judge. ‘I think not,’ came the judicial reply. The judge was the only one to look put out and that could have been consummate acting. For the rest of us it was blessed freedom. Hair appointments were booked. Car services were arranged. Medical appointments were sought and I rang the plumber to deal with my ever-leaking shower. Everyone said they would look in to Chambers to uncover the customary mountain of mail in our pigeon-holes. It was an opportunity, rare in a long case, to do the ordinary things of life that the employed manage by sneaking off for an hour or two, taking a sickie or, in extremis, using up a day’s holiday.
When I came into Chambers I was greeted by a rush of members all wanting me to electronically sign an online petition, intervene personally with a Liz Truss, apparently the Lord Chancellor; ring my contacts at the Bar Council or just do ‘something’. I was desperately trying to work out what the fuss was about when Hetty Briar-Pitt, who regards humans as things you have contact with when there is no horse around, started gabbling some incoherent nonsense at me about her domestic arrangements. ‘Do you know what happens,’ she said, ‘when they don’t get fed?’ It took me a moment to realise that she was referring to her four-legged brood and not her husband, Ernst Pennington, who was currently sitting in the Divisional Court and generally dined at his club.
Before I could think of a holding reply, Andrew, our senior clerk, rescued me. ‘Urgent call, sir! In the Admin Room!’ I shot in to a tiny room mostly filled with over-sized printers and Andrew joined me 30 seconds later through another door which led to the rear of the Clerks’ Room. It reminded me of those Whitehall farces when I was a child and I half-expected Brian Rix to enter, without his trousers, pursued by an aggrieved husband who had mistaken him for his wife’s lover. ‘It’s those new longer working days, sir.’ It did not immediately ring a bell – such is the suspended animation of life in the outside world during a long trial – but after he thrust into my hands details of some nonsensical new efficiency plan by the Ministry of (Bad) Jokes, some light began to dawn. ‘Not this again,’ I moaned. ‘Do you remember the last incarnation of this plan?’ ‘You did mention it, sir,’ said Andrew.
My mind went wobbly, like the screen in a film noire before a character reveals past events, and I remembered from a few years ago strange wraith-like creatures, resembling my colleagues, entering a Crown court robing room at around 4.30pm announcing they were there to start ‘the evening shift’. Of course, no case was ever ready; the judge would adjourn everything at the drop of a hat; defendants on bail did not attend, later saying that had not understood the solicitor’s strange message about timing, and those in custody were whisked off by a prison on the dot of 5.30pm – with staff citing contractual provisions and their alleged concern that the prisoner got a hot meal. The whole thing was an unmitigated fiasco and it was allowed to die a quiet death. Perhaps the turnover at the Ministry is such that no-one remembers the scheme now. It certainly is unlikely to have been retained in the archives.
The particular vice of the night-shift is if the listing is only revealed the day before because the case had no fixed time and date and was only in a warned list. Professional rules could forbid a late return of the brief even assuming any colleague would take it. Thus, family and social engagements would be wrecked and it would be enough to put another chunk of aspiring barristers off the criminal Bar. How would Liz Truss react if her evening appointments were scheduled the day before and were obligatory?
I left Chambers and returned home to be greeted by the plumber with my showerhead in his hand. ‘Bit worse than we thought, Mr B, the whole pipe is limescaled – going to take a bit longer.’ ‘Oh well,’ I said, ‘que sera, sera.’ The plumber looked slightly bemused. ‘Don’t know about that sir, but it will be double time after 6pm.’