Secret E-Diary - August 2014

Celebrating an independent judiciary.

This week saw me chugging along by train out of Victoria to the southern confines of my circuit. I was covering, by part time judging as a Recorder, one of those inevitable periods in the life of a publicly funded Silk that actors call “resting” and we call “working on papers”. Unwisely, I travelled First Class. My efforts to balance a fi le on a Formica table the size of a postage stamp had nearly succeeded when an evil smelling creature boarded the train together with an emaciated whippet. Both stared at me.

I had enough animal instinct to evacuate the compartment at high speed. From the whining to my rear, I guessed that the dog had much the same feeling but was inhibited from following by a metal chain attached to a tattoed arm.

Sitting down in “Standard”, at a full-sized table, I tried to look as if I had nonchalantly decided on a change of seat. No-one was fooled. Then I realised that the face opposite was both familiar and smiling. “Hello, William. Visiting the seaside?” It was Michael Bravery (pronounced with a short ‘a’) a circuit judge and good friend. Normally, he could be found at a modern Crown Court in central London.

“No,” I replied, “doing my community service.” He smiled again. “As am I.” I was about to express surprise that he had been turfed out of his normal habitat when suddenly I remembered…Michael was everything you could want in a really good judge. He resembled the commanding officer of a rather tough regiment and had a slightly gruff manner in court, which told all concerned that there would be no messing. He ran a tight ship, to mix metaphors, and had a marked dislike of incompetence and slovenly advocacy. However, underneath all that he was tolerant, even a touch soft-hearted, and had a strong sense of justice.

At the Bar he prosecuted more often than he defended and you always knew he would have read the papers with enormous care. The trial was no static presentation for him. I remember once asking fifteen questions of substance during a short case in which we were against one another. Each of them was met overnight by Notices of additional Evidence, placed on my lectern in court to await my arrival and entirely demolishing every point. There was no unpleasantness, no funny business – just toughness, hard work and drive. His case officers always looked completely exhausted by the close of the evidence, as were his opponents. A slightly raised eyebrow or a pursed lip were all the external signs he gave you of what he might be thinking, although you had the distinct impression he was not far from laughing on many occasions.

He had a run of rather tricky cases this year. As at the Bar, so on the Bench: it happens. Although e navigated them all with his customary aplomb, one involved an issue in which the government itself had an interest. Michael heard all of the arguments and ruled in favour of the defendant.

Most of us considered that he had lived up to his surname – this time pronounced in the conventional way – with that decision. This is surely what really distinguishes a true liberal democracy from its alternatives, whatever they call themselves. Free speech is what it says, no more and no less, and votes can be manipulated by direct corruption or by more sophisticated techniques of mass persuasion. One true test of a free country is when a lawful power is exercised by an independent judge – however unpopular or inconvenient his or her decision may be to a citizen, the public or particularly the state.

Life, of course, is not a fairy tale. It rarely has happy endings and Michael’s judgment did not survive the higher courts. However, and in that curious way the British establishment has of dealing with embarrassing difficulties, the problem on which he had adjudicated was removed behind the scenes for resolution at another time and in another way. I was concerned that Michael might now be suffering banishment, albeit to a charming Siberia. I tried to be tactful, unsuccessfully I fear.

“Long case, is it?” I asked. On this occasion Michael really did burst out laughing. “I only have a day return, William. Just helping out with a tricky Manslaughter plea. I’ll be back before you.” Then we were through the tunnel and, with a screeching sound, there. We both smiled. “Taxi?” I enquired. “No,” he said, “let’s walk, you lazy article!” He can occasionally be unkind. 

William Byfield, Gutteridge Chambers

William Byfield is the pseudonym of a senior member of the Bar. Gutteridge Chambers, and the events that happen there, are entirely fictitious.