I was invited to a rather curious costume display a few years back when the High Court judiciary was keen to modernise its costumes - a desire about as silly as the otherwise admirable Lord Woolf’s removal of Norman-French and Latin terminology.

In the latter instance, pithy words and phrases, understood by millions across the common law globe were expanded to ugly and cumbersome English on the patronising assumption that a certain kind of litigant would understand the one but not the other. Since my understanding of certiorari was gained from a litigant in person who left school at fourteen but happened to have an enquiring mind, this was true, perversely. The Latin mass was another universal language - now rendered in national tongues; stripped of its beauty, simplicity and mystery. Even the english of The Only Way is Essex is preferable to the lifeless modern civic and ecclesiastical alternatives.

Legal costumes… Missing from these archives is the occasion I was invited to an exhibition of potential new fashion “numbers” for the High Court Bench. A man I presumed to be a judge, who bore a certain resemblance to Nigel Havers but was not, asked my opinion of one of the designs. “Are you a fan of Star Trek, perchance?” I asked. “Up to a point,” he replied. “Well,” I said, with a smile playing fatally about my lips, “Qo’noS Crown Court, don’t you think?” I waved my arms at the mannequins in the glass cases behind us. “I’m not with you,” he said. “Capital city of the Klingon home world,” I explained. “Wasn’t Captain Kirk tried there in Star Trek VI?”

Another entry that never made it here, because it was in my early years, was a dreadful day when I was due to defend a “receiver” at Watford Crown Court; a court more difficult to locate than a butterfly in central London. I arrived early, around 0900, and, leaving the train, saw a man in front carrying a black briefcase and wearing grey ‘morning’ stripes and a black jacket: favoured still by a minority of barristers in the early eighties. I followed him. We traversed streets, then alleys and eventually ended up at a dingy local government office where he was a rather sad official in social security. I arrived in front of Judge Gatley at 1045. I think he concluded I was insane. I am an inveterate maker of assumptions and I do not learn my lesson.

As I finished explaining my view of Klingon/English court dress to my supposed judicial friend, I saw deep pain etched upon his face. Star Trek can have this effect on non-believers. Before I could joke about ejecting my warp core, he explained, in three simple but terrible words. “I designed them.” The combined experience of dealing with awkward customers from judges, through barristers, solicitors and clerks to witnesses and lay clients failed me on this occasion. I was speechless.

Ernst Pennington is a Red judge who keeps to the scarlet. Straight as a ramrod, he descends from a family of rather eminent German lawyers who blended with a rather charming clerical lot in Buckinghamshire. He is fiendishly bright and ineffably modest in equal measure. Despite being a workaholic, he prefers crime because, as he puts it, the pay is the same whatever the difficulty.

We met at a discreet hostelry and, at first, the conversation was typical of the modern Bar/Bench stuff. “Hear your lot’s going down the tubes” (him). “Judicial food as vile as ever?” (me). “How much has your pension gone down this year?” (both of us).

Then he gripped the stem of his White Lady (shaken here with the precise proportions of ice, gin, cointreau, lemon juice, egg white, frosted glass and maraschino cherry) and fixed me with a look. “I’m thinking of proposing marriage,” he said. A momentary spasm of fear passed through my body. Was he thinking of one of those civil partnerships, or even a new coalition thing, with me? Relief, overtaken almost immediately by severe shock, hit as he said in a manner wholly out of character: “A spry filly from your stable to whom you are giving an outing in the Claude Allerick case. The gorgeous Hetty Briar-Pitt.”

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

William Byfield
Gutteridge Chambers