When it’s spring again, I’ll bring again tulips from Amsterdam…
May 1, 2021 – Max Bygraves


New age or false dawn..? As our freedoms return, we look anxiously around for new variants of COVID. Paddy Corkhill, who has already been seen in freezing outdoor locations managing the odd glass, has started to name them after Crown Courts badly in need of refurbishment. As he put it: ‘No need to worry how fast they multiply, we’ll never run out of names.’

Moments of corpsing joy in court have returned – the only bits of trials we really remember. Last week, in front of Lulu Enderby at a senior location, a co-defendant in an extremely contentious kidnapping case was being cross-examined by Elliot Ridley, a very kind-hearted and ebullient solicitor-advocate whom I have known for 40 years. Elliot is the ultimate multi-tasker and propels himself around the court complex like some guided missile which has a damaged sat nav. Always on his mobile phone, he is simultaneously arranging the attendance of character witnesses, speaking to the distressed families of numerous adolescent suspects, and case-managing about 50 trials. He speaks as fast as the highest speed train travels, and without the cracks.

Our trial is split into two courtrooms to maintain social distancing. What will future ages make of that phrase? The first entry into the language describing a familiar modus vivandi or a word which temporarily imprisons the reader in a period of time that never returned, like the Jazz Age? Anyway, as Elliot’s client is in the overspill court (‘Siberia’ as we call it) Elliot has to fly into court, like a train about to hit the buffers at spectacular speed, if he wants to address our court with any certainty he will be heard.

He had hurtled in last week to cross-examine the co-defendant who, says Elliot’s client, is the actual villain of the piece. His cross-examination style is to fire a volley of questions without waiting for any answer; a fact that irritates both the witness and the judge. He commenced his cross-examination, continually looking at his watch, with questions such as Q: ‘You didn’t see my client at all that night, did you?’ A: ‘Well, I did because…’ Q: ‘It’s no good lying. You’ve hated him for years, haven’t you?’ A: ‘Could I just answer the first question as you didn’t…’ Q: ‘I’m afraid we haven’t time to wait while you invent another pack of lies.’ The co-defendant, a rotund little man with a high-pitched voice, who thinks everyone is out to get him, was just coping with a fit of wounded outrage when Elliot’s mobile went off loudly to the tune of Roll out the Barrel. ‘Oh, my God…’ squeaked the witness. Neither he nor Elliot understood why everyone in the courtroom started laughing, including – indeed, in particular – Lulu.

The criminal Bar is certainly returning to life, including the sight of a fair sprinkling of old and familiar faces. This seemed a good sign, encouraged by the vaccine programme. Then I read the profession’s submissions to the Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid Panel on how the slashing of fees in publicly funded work has forced many younger practitioners to change their career paths.

The Year of the Lockdown has shown many strengths of the legal system that we sometimes overlook: resilience of the system when under great stress; innovations that can be introduced in emergencies to find alternative court locations; the use of technology to avoid unnecessary personal court appearances and the ability to see clients in prison via video links. Hetty Briar-Pitt is brimming with animal optimism and enthusiasm; a cross between National Velvet and Born Free! The Lord Chancellor’s willingness to listen and the Independent Review itself have combined to bring the first real hope to the beleaguered world of criminal practice. That, and the first shoots of Spring…

I am not a gardener. As Ernst Pennington, High Court husband of Hetty once said: ‘It’s strange, William, how plants invariably wilt in your house.’ They obviously needed me in The Day of the Triffids. I do know, however, about the danger of late frosts. We need to tend our court estate, get our still primitive digital systems to work with stable and fast broadband and radically reduce the huge divide between the fees paid for privately and publicly funded work. Otherwise, those shoots, including young people from all walks of life and backgrounds who want to have their chance to join this fantastic profession, will wither away and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that COVID has weirdly and unexpectedly presented to us will be lost.