The court staff always look vaguely surprised to see you and advocates have replaced their “it’s coming up to Christmas” excuses with the “those instructing me are not yet back at their desks” variety. On my first day back and ensconced at an inner city Crown Court, Cynthia, my very charming Usher, told me that there were no pre-sentence reports, two defendants had failed to turn up and most assigned counsel were in several courts at once.
“Ah well, “ I said, “ and just when I had given up coffee!”
“ ’Fraid you have to make that yourself now, your Honour. It’s down the corridor on the right, but I’m not sure the milk is fresh.”
I put my feet up, popped the headphones on and listened to some mind-soothing musical pap on Classic FM. My thoughts drifted backwards to the holidays. We had motored down to Devon to see some old friends. Hugh Barkman was a lovely old soul. He had been a completely hopeless metropolitan barrister, but a surprisingly good circuit judge. Until he was empurpled we had never appreciated that his true skill was to indicate his view of a witness’ evidence or a barrister’s submission by the extent to which he manipulated his eyebrows. He rarely shouted and clients who received the most savage sentences always seemed quite well disposed to him on visiting them in the cells to discuss a potential appeal.
We motored down on a damp and drizzly day after Christmas. After a wash and brush-up Hugh and Jean provided us with a very welcome cocktail and we then sat down to a delicious dinner that did not include turkey, sprouts, sausages or Christmas pudding. Hugh seemed still to be remarkably well-informed about legal life and my forthcoming cases.
“I see you’re defending the young thug that murdered Claude Allerick,” he said.
“Allegedly, Hugh,” I reminded him. “Unusually, we have rather a good defence.”
“Always the worst ones,” he commented. “Never seems so bad when you think they probably did it. I always hated the cases where you really felt there was a doubt.”
“Claude Allerick was your own Chambers, wasn’t he?” asked Jean. “Isn’t that a conflict of interest, or whatever you lot call it?”
Hugh answered for me: “Only if he were prosecuting, my dear. It could never be a conflict to defend somebody of killing Claude. Many would see it as a public service.”
We ate the most wonderful chocolate soufflé and, as the port circulated, the logs burned in the grate and that blissful sound of nuts cracking interspersed with our conversation, we grew old and mellow.
“Is it as ghastly now as they say?” asked Jean.
“Worse,” I said. “We are all about to be quality assessed by the judges, which will doubtless give our clients enormous confidence in our disinterested efforts on their behalf.”
“God,” said Hugh. “I thought it had got pretty bad with the Criminal Procedure Rules.”
“They keep saying it’s not a game,” I answered.
“It never was,” said Hugh. “You just trusted each other a bit more. I prosecuted some chap who had possibly the most incompetent barrister known to man – far worse than I – and this terrible old bully of a judge at the Bailey took every advantage and humiliated him. He appealed and I had no idea what to say to the Court of Appeal, but no need of course. Lord Justice Ollerton looked this man in the eye and recited the litany of appeal points adding periodically ‘we deeply disapprove’ until he came to the conclusion: ‘this was one of the worst examples of judicial excess. Virtually every principle of a fair trial was violated’ – he paused and the two Puisne judges flanking him looked down – ‘and, indeed, had you not been there, serious injustice might have resulted.’
“I remember appearing in front of you, Hugh. I gave a pretty good closing speech, though I say it myself, and then you began your summing up to the jury by saying ‘Members of the jury, you have heard one of the best speeches possible from one of this country’s finest barristers. He spoke to you in the most brilliant way, covering every conceivable topic that might assist you, save for one – the evidence – and I’ll remind you of that now.’”
“Style,” said Hugh. “We didn’t need these crass rules.”
“Style,” I repeated, feeling just a touch drunk, “and justice.”
Jean blew out the candles: “Bedtime, boys”.
William Byfield is the pseudonym of a senior member of the Bar. Gutteridge Chambers, and the events that happen there, are entirely fictitious.