The Bar is a strange place. You don’t see someone for years and then you keep bumping into them every five minutes. Last month’s trip to Newmarket brought about the apparently catastrophic meeting between Montgomery Hopkirk and Randall J. when the judge thought Hopkirk was not in front of him because he was sitting as a Recorder whereas Hopkirk was in fact only too literally right in front of him. ‘Randall, and Hopkirk deceased’, as Paddy Corkhill said, bringing to mind the seventies television series about a private investigator and his deceased and subsequently ghostly partner. I did not think to see either again for a long time.
In fact, I saw both of them in the following fortnight. Hopkirk phoned Chambers to speak to me. It turned out that the events at the racecourse were in fact entirely innocent and he was naturally concerned that Randall J. should have the true story. ‘I did go and sit as a Recorder – to deal with a case that had been in front of me as a trial and was returning for a rather complicated sentence,’ he said. ‘The defendant was in custody. They forgot to put him on the transport. Despite frantic calls, he was never brought and, by noon, I was told in no uncertain terms there was no spare van for him that day. That’s what I meant when I said it fell through.’ I suggested he tell the judge, but he was suffering from being sent to Coventry by an irate Randall on any topic other than that of the trial in which they were both involved. I was sympathetic, but did not see what I could really do about it. ‘William, you’re a senior man. Please. He won’t freeze you out. Couldn’t you just have a word?’
Bravery is a strange thing. Some people can do things in battle that most cannot and yet will blanche at the sight of a needle. Others can bear unusual amounts of pain but will run from a small spider. Years ago I called a huge rugby front-row forward, who had witnessed a mugging. All I said was ‘Will you tell the court your name, please?’ and the next minute we were watching him being brought round by the usher from the carpet on the floor next to the witness box. I am not sure that I ever do anything particularly brave, but it tested my nerve to call on Mr Justice Randall.
He has a very nice clerk called Matthew who made the appointment and gave me invaluable advice when I arrived in the ante-room: ‘I’ll put the biscuits on a plate between you. Just take one. He won’t offer…’ I shall not record the rather painful interview that followed. Possibly my masterstroke, when the penny had finally dropped with him as to the true circumstances, was to say ‘How did you manage to get the day off yourself?’ There was a brief silence. Anthony Heythrop Randall has one feature, noticeable above all others: he likes to have something in his sights at which he can fire a direct shot. The Hopkirk bird having flown off, it was immediately replaced by the Ministry of Justice. ‘It’s outrageous!’ he said. ‘The entire system of criminal justice in this country is at the mercy of finding some conveyance with which to bring a prisoner to court. What is the point of celebrating Magna Carta when the citizen’s right to his trial is imperilled by this bureaucratic incompetence?’ I felt a number of rather large concepts were being confused, but it mattered not. Eight more minutes elapsed whilst the diatribe continued. I managed to snaffle two viennese whirls and a jammie dodger, unnoticed. However, I had honoured my trust as a senior man and Hopkirk was clear.
The following week, he paid me a surprise visit in Chambers. I have always had rather a soft spot for Montgomery Hopkirk and there were tears in both our eyes as he just shook my hand, regardless of convention, and said simply ‘Thank you’. Over a whisky, poured from a bottle presented to me by a grateful alleged fraudster, he had something else to say: ‘I have just accepted instructions in a wrongful arrest and malicious prosecution case. Very high profile. Not my normal fare or yours, I imagine. But don’t you think we would be a pretty unstoppable pair?’ And I heard myself say with a leap in my heart and a lurch in my stomach: ‘I do.’
William Byfield is the pseudonym of a senior member of the Bar. Gutteridge Chambers, and the events that happen there, are entirely fictitious.