Secret E-Diary - May 2014

As a child I was given a short book written by the late Mr Justice Darling – a man who was known for his judicial wit, although his Spy pen-portrait bore the unkind legend “Judicial Lightweight”. I had high hopes of this book of legal gems. Alas, it was the dullest book I ever read with all his anecdotes, quips and aphorisms falling flat. It now lives in our lavatory for what my dear mama, when we were little, used to call “struggles”.

Darling is not alone, however. With noble exceptions, the written anecdotes of lawyers are deeply dull. The reason is that we live in an oral tradition, whatever those civil practitioners and sillies who dreamt up the Criminal Procedural Rules think: a world where stories are told and retold in robing rooms, chambers and wine bars. A very great character in Silk when I was a young barrister, called Barry, despite it being none of his given names nor any recognised foreshortening of them, once paid me the honour of telling me the story I had told him six hours earlier about a case of mine but with Barry now in the title role – quite oblivious of the irony. The characters in these stories come to life because we knew them or know them still or, at the least, knew or know of them.

Fortunately this diary is written to myself, otherwise I would be about to fall into the same trap I have just been describing. I could not let my monthly diary pass, however, without noting that my dreadful case in the Court of Appeal, into which my impeccably dressed and delightfully charming junior who hails from Iran had tempted me and which had been passed upstairs by a single judge who is as attracted to perverse arguments as the rabbit is to the headlights, finally hit the Coliseum in the Strand. I found myself joined by Andrew Asquith QC, acting for the co-appellant.

Asquith must be in his late seventies and yet he is one of these curiously ageless people who are as attractive to the young as they were when undergraduates, perhaps more so, and have a certain chimerical quality. He can be seen on any given night at a concert, a play – sometimes acting in it – a rave, a dinner, a lecture, a revue, events in the Temple and outside it. Judges laugh a little too loudly in his presence, betraying an edge of fear. This is not so much because his disarmingly ordinary manner disguises a brilliant intellect, although it does, but more that he has a rapier-like wit that takes no prisoners, an uncanny grasp of character, particularly those little weaknesses and foibles that most would want to remain unrehearsed, and an acting talent of such strength that the vignette or demonstration of the aforementioned characteristic will render even the victim paralysed with laughter.

A week before our outing in front of the imperial box, I received a call from another Andrew: my senior clerk. He seemed amused about something. When he finally spat it out, it was that as an extra attraction for our audience, we were to be subjected to the torture of having to present our cases electronically with a court that would enter, not to face the usual mini-libraries of books and papers for their lordships, but three slim computers. “They do realise that Asquith is in this case, don’t they?” I enquired. “He had to pinch most of my papers during the trial, let alone cope with the whole thing on some IT platform.” “I told them sir,” said Andrew, not very convincingly.

It did not get off to a good start. The appeal before us involved a sentence on a fraudster whose principal mitigation appeared to be that he had indulged a little too liberally in the delights of younger ladies and thus strained his bank balance. Asquith rolled his eyes knowingly at the presiding Lord Justice who had the greatest difficulty in keeping a straight face.

Then Mr Justice Huntingdon, who, curiously, had been at school with me, got down to business. “What page is your skeleton argument in our electronic bundle, Mr Asquith?” he asked. “I have no idea,” he replied. “I can’t even find it. Perhaps Mr Byfield could lend me his?” I slid mine over briskly without looking at him. Huntingdon J. thought he ought to make matters clear. “Mr Asquith,” he said, “we are proceeding digitally this morning.” Asquith looked up with a disarming smile: “I’m glad you said that, m’lord.”

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.