SecretE-Diary - April 2011

William Byfield, Gutteridge Chambers

Hard times spawn a yearning for the luxuries of yesteryears and an unexpected flirtation

14 March 2011: Change and decay in all around I see: O thou who changest not, abide with me! ...

It is often said nowadays that the Bar is not the joy it once was - “fun” is the word actually used but it has a certain frivolous connotation best avoided in works of record such as this.

Well, neither is judging. It has been getting bad for a long while, ever since the last lot decided to play a version of Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game with the criminal law, making it so esoteric that even a magister ludi might spend a lifetime studying it and still be no nearer the essence.

It is even worse for Recorders like myself. Gone are the days when we arrived at Court for our little stint, ready to sweep on to the Bench and administer justice with ancient principle and a common touch. Now we stagger into court clutching increasingly heavy books of reference facing young, and not so young, juniors and solicitor advocates and preside over a colloquy of the bewildered. The act of passing sentence used to be swift and decisive, sending the bad to prison and the rest back home with a fine or community service - all aware, through hearing the minimum words necessary to drive home a point, that crime does not pay. Now, after an address of such length and tedium that the defendant and any available security staff in the dock are snoring together at the back, you pass some sentence couched in gobbledygook with the aid of a calculator that can do funny percentages, to find that the defendant has not even got the energy to call you an old whatsit.

If it is bad enough on stage, behind the scenes is even worse. I arrived to dispense justice in urgent need of a coffee only to be told by my charming usher that they did not “do teas” any more and I could ring the kitchen for one.

After a morning in which the case listed could not go ahead because no-one had warned the chief witness, I retired to my room to listen to some soothing music on the ipod. At least there was lunch soon. Lunch in most judges’ messes is not precisely Egon Ronay, but it is perfectly acceptable and the staff often add their own little touches with cocktail sauces and the like. I arrived there early and sat in my appointed place. About ten minutes later I was joined by Nick Pensey, an old nautical mate of mine from yesteryear. 

“Waiting for Godot?” he asked, as he strode into the dining room. “A tuna salad actually,” I replied. He then informed me that it would be a long wait as waitress service had been withdrawn. I looked suitably aghast. “You go down the corridor, find a trolley with some covered plates and grab your grub. Wonderful, isn’t it?” By a quarter past one the lunch party was still just Nick and myself. “Where are the others?” I asked. “They’ve gone to the pub over the road,” he said. “They’ve persuaded the landlord to let them use a disused storeroom upstairs. Lap of luxury! I hope the MoJ doesn’t come to hear of it - otherwise they’ll probably transfer the whole shebang over the road and we can all have a pint with the jury afterwards.”

By the afternoon, a couple of punters from the morning list had decided to roll in for the matinee. The second was represented by a nice girl, Penny Watson, who was doing a third six at Gutteridge.

It was only an application to adjourn, so I gave her a friendly wink at the point when prosecuting counsel was diverted by his Archbold falling on to the plastic water jug. She seemed in another world so I gave her a tiny wave. She got to her feet, smiling. I realized then how deceptively disguising barristers’ wigs can be. It was not Penny Watson at all, but, on closer inspection, someone I had never met before.

I tried to pretend unconvincingly that a contact lens was irritating the left eye – to account for the apparent wink – and that my hand was cramped – to accommodate the wave. “Good morning, your Honour,” she said with a certain playfulness of tone. I had a wrenching feeling that I had just created a new menace on the high seas from which ultimate escape would be impossible. Will I never learn?.

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