Secret E-Diary

Our market may be wider than we think

We are having another one of our soul-searching exercises in Chambers. 

As publicly funded criminal work will for the foreseeable future be very poorly paid, the search for other pastures continues. There have been brief flurries of success for individual practitioners but many disappointments in the majority of alternative routes. The juniors find some solace in secondments, although they lose valuable court experience and risk failing to build a practice. On the other hand, bills have to be paid in all cases and mouths have to be fed in some.

Hetty Briar-Pitt’s excursion into the law of animals, based on her breeding of horses, was brief despite my buying her the excellent text book written by my former and long-suffering law tutor at the University, which he has recently revised in a second edition about 40 years after the first. Although her passion and commitment to all creatures great and small blazed forth, she suffered from two difficulties: first, the age-old issue for the start-up practice – what cases have you done before? – and, second, the fact that the solicitor who Andrew had somehow tempted in after an evening in a west-end wine bar, specialised in clients whose land and livestock had been damaged by our furry friends and Hetty’s ‘they are sweet things really’ was not what they wished to hear.

Then I found myself at dinner with a man called James, who spends most of his time trying to advise political parties on how to make themselves more attractive to the public. He was in a morose mood. ‘Do your clients ever listen to advice?’ he asked. ‘They take it in at some level,’ I replied, ‘but the cold shock of cross-examination knocks it away in about 30 seconds. Often, even the friendly waters of examination-in-chief have the same effect.’ ‘Mine don’t even listen in the first place,’ he said. ‘I tell them: find a cheap supermarket and learn the prices of everyday foodstuffs. Do they? Do they hell! They give you a smug smile, redolent of all those days in student politics, showing you they have learned nothing. Then they face Andrew Neill and are slaughtered. Costing policies – that’s a laugh. The only costings they ever do are their expense forms.’

After a few more glasses of an excellent Rousseau Chambertin he became more voluble. ‘You should get in there,’ he said. ‘Politics?’ I asked, wondering which political party fitted my own rather peculiar world view. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I mean you lot… barristers. You’ve no idea how bad they are at asking and answering questions. It’s all about them. You could teach them how to do it or persuade select committees to instruct counsel. And television interviewing: you could be dynamite with some shifty politician.’

I put to the back of mind the potential conflicts of interest that his bewildering array of opportunities might entail and pressed him further. ‘But in what way?’ I asked. ‘I watched you in court once, at the Bailey. Do you remember? You had a witness under cross-examination and instead of attacking him as a violent bigot you went to the other side of him, encouraging him to even greater degrees of nastiness.’ It did stir a memory. ‘You said “It must have been very frightening to hear the defendant verbally abusing you? People like that may deserve a hard smack.” “Exactly mate,” he responded. This went on in a similar chummy fashion for about five minutes until you said: “and then you smacked him.” “Self-defence, mate!” Your voice suddenly became very hard and you said: “But you just agreed with me; he deserved it.” Outside, you called it a reverse treble Salchow with loop. You were into ice-skating in those days.’

He asked me to imagine that technique with politicians: not confronting them with snappy objections to the particular policy they were enunciating, producing the inevitable elusive responses, but appearing to be sympathetic to the idea and encouraging them to even further excess before revealing oneself as the crocodile with an open mouth. That and our many other techniques of exposing flawed testimony came into my mind.

Next day, I tested the water with Andrew our Senior Clerk. Was he tempted or it was just one more of the governor’s nutty ideas? ‘Don’t always have to do it that way, sir.’ He slid over to me an envelope containing a letter I had written to the Lord Chancellor, Liz Truss, on 8 June, about the nonsense of evening courts. It had been returned by the Royal Mail, marked ‘Not Known at this Address’.

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