Secret E-Diary - July 2013

A minute’s silence for the passing of the legal aid sytem

June 10, 2013: “Nothing’s sacred to those devils.” Batman (Adam West)

Short of bumping into the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse on the way to the Bailey, things could not feel more eschatological. Arriving, I spotted what looked like a huge number of nicotine-addicted barristers congregating on the pavement outside the entrance. Hetty Briar-Pitt, my junior, barred my entry and forced me, like a shy horse, into their ranks. It dawned on me then that this was, in fact, a minute’s silence for the passing of the legal aid system.


As the Lord Chancellor put it yesterday, in respect of Brussels Eurocrats: “They all too often seem completely oblivious to the potential consequences of what they are doing.” I appreciate that he works from the premise, to quote his own words again, that “most people who find themselves in our criminal justice system are not great connoisseurs of legal skills.” Presumably most government ministers have to learn this expertise: swilling only superior and vintage lawyers around their palates before spitting them into one unattractive case after another at enormous cost. Also, he appears to preside over a department that can be seen to have certain difficulties with each of the words “price”, “competitive” and “tendering”.

I note for my diary that the Public Accounts Committee, in examining the Ministry’s little foray into price competitive tendering for interpreters, noted: “…when the Ministry of Justice set out to establish a new centralised system for supplying interpreters to the justice system, almost everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.” Sadly, according to the Committee: “The Ministry did not understand its own basic requirements, such as how many interpreters it needed in what languages.” The conclusion was that the Ministry was “not an intelligent customer in procuring language services, despite the risks posed to the administration of justice and to the Ministry’s reputation.” Oh dear…bodes well…

I appreciate there are connoisseurs and connoisseurs. But, against that background, criminal clients are the Sotheby’s of legal discrimination, whereas the Ministry appears to represent an off-day on “Bargain Hunt”.

Inside the Bar Mess, there was an almost freakish atmosphere of levity, which I soon realised was, in fact, mass hysteria. An alarming number of practitioners, including those generally least likely to be involved in any kind of revolt, were saying with grim determination that this was the Final Battle and that if the publicly funded referral Bar was to go down, it was better it did so after fierce and bloody battle.

Then the tannoy announced that all parties in various cases were to proceed to their allotted courts with despatch and we rose and swarmed around the long-suffering lifts to rub shoulders with staff, witnesses, a few defendants on bail and our jurors. As always, one bright spark entered the lift and, in answer to the question “going up or going down?” said “going down! - like my client” only to blush furiously when he noticed one of the jurors from his trial lurking in the corner.

In 1993, there was a memorable debacle at the Grand National where something went wrong with the tape, but thirty of the thirty-nine riders completed the course unaware that there had been a false start. A similar thing has happened in my trial where alleged judge-killers, Jason Grimble and Moses Lane, with the rest of us, set off to Bechers Brook, only to find we had been dismounted by the Canal Turn. It is strange how being in a trial with horse-loving Hetty puts these images in my head, particularly when the judge is called Hay.

Despite giving our jury every sporting chance to be disqualified before the race began, we still somehow ended up with a police officer juror who had some knowledge of the investigation but had not realised it at the time of selection. Putting police officers on juries was another bright idea of our politicians, although, in this case, the last lot. At best, it adds a perceived unfairness in any defendant’s mind – their connoisseurship sufficiently defined to work out that this does not seem wholly “cricket” – at worst, something goes wrong. It is but one of the myriad circumstances adding to the sort of cost and delay in trials but not part of the present consultation, entitled “Transforming Legal Aid: delivering a more credible and efficient system” – a title presumably pinched from the North Korean Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.

I am glad to record, however, that we have been rounded up intact, now have a new jury and I hope by next month to report some progress. Only Hetty was seriously annoyed: summer being the season for horse shows and events. I only hope we can win a Bailey rosette.

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