My salad days, when I was green in judgment…
July 24, 2022 – William Shakespeare


I wanted to say ‘yippee!’ a few weeks ago when I had a private case at a suburban Crown Court – yippee, because in these days of our straightened legal aid remuneration, it was at least a decent fee for my services and, yippee again, because, unlike my usual fare, here was a defence that actually stood a good chance of succeeding even though the subject matter of the case might more normally have been dealt with by a pretty junior barrister. Of course, any stain on my client’s character would have been a serious matter for him and he was entitled to seek the assistance of senior counsel, Head of Chambers etc, if he wished. He did not, however, believe he needed to pay additionally for the services of junior counsel, much to my disappointment.

So, I wanted to celebrate but something of a pall hung over the prospect: part of the trial would take place during days of action by members of the Criminal Bar as part of its more than justified campaign to persuade the government to honour recommendations to increase legal-aid fees for criminal defence barristers immediately.

Private defence briefs are not covered by the days of action, but I dreaded the thought of having to cross a picket line of much-loved colleagues. I felt that telling them I wasn’t crossing a picket line at all because the instructions were not legally aided might be the sort of comment to precipitate something like the French Revolution, even if the perilous masonry at the front of this particular court would hardly have supported a swinging feather, let alone a dangling barrister. As it happened, the picket line was being more effectively deployed at more notable court centres, although I still felt uncomfortable walking inside.

In the court building, I felt as though I had gone back 35 years as I adjusted to having no junior, thus being entirely responsible for the whole case. My opponent was called Geoffrey Tatum. I had heard of him as a rising young star and he certainly seemed undaunted by my presence. Usually, in very serious cases, the morning begins with a canter through the phone and CCTV evidence, making a few corrections to the schedule such as altering the description of the defendant’s phone from ‘Target 1’ to his actual name. Here, however, I found myself speaking as I did when my three-piece suit (now in the attic) still fitted. ‘Are you seriously going on with this?’ I asked Tatum. ‘I couldn’t possibly deprive the jury of your closing speech, William,’ was the reply. ‘I won’t disappoint you,’ I said. The adrenalin was coursing through my veins. I seemed to remember a vague warning from my GP about this phenomenon.

The court centre itself had been relatively new when I first came through the door all those years ago. Now it had the dilapidated air that the government clearly sees as representing the justice system. The public canteen had been turned into a jury canteen although, since it was locked, it made little difference. The Bar Mess was open to eat in, although no-one was providing any food, and piles of uncollected debris from the day before were strewn around the tables. A few eating places had been randomly set in the foyer of the court with three lovely people doing their best to manage a vast queue of court-users looking for coffee, soft drinks and a baguette.

Inside the courtroom, it all looked smaller than I had remembered it. Was this the scene of my famous victories, and the occasional disaster? The judge looked rather puzzled: ‘Mr Byfield?’ Tatum rose to his impressive height. ‘Mr Byfield represents this defendant, your Honour, who does not have the benefit of legal aid.’ The judge looked at me. I could read the mental bubble: ‘Drinks are on you next time we meet.’ The case took five days and I ended my speech with words rarely heard in my usual courts: ‘This man, members of the jury, is entirely innocent of any crime.’ He was acquitted before I had time to queue for a coffee.

I went to the car park. I would have to curb my adrenalin behind the wheel. On the way back, Andrew, my Senior Clerk, called on the handsfree. ‘Well done, sir,’ he said. ‘You haven’t forgotten next week, have you?’ In all the excitement, I had. ‘That double murder, sir, where your client confessed to the police and is now saying his father did it.’ The years rolled in, like a flood tide. The interlude was over.