SecretE-Diary - May 2012

A yearning for the good old days when murder trials could be wrapped up in a fortnight and juries usually came to a verdict in a day

April 15, 2012: “Did you like her?” “Did I like her?” “Yes, that is the question.”                       
The opening of Frederick  Seddon’s cross-examination by Sir Rufus Issacs KC

Why do criminal trials take so long nowadays? The thought struck me as I re-read the trial of Frederick Seddon in Notable British Trials, – a wonderful series that some enterprising soul should resurrect, save that each major trial would now need 15 volumes.
Seddon’s trial for the murder by arsenical poisoning of his female lodger whose financial affairs he superintended, a two-handed trial which depended upon circumstantial evidence and highly technical and contested evidence about the discovery of the arsenic, involved calling 45 prosecution witnesses, 13 defence witnesses including the defendants, and two witnesses in rebuttal by the Crown. The trial took 10 days, which was quite long for 1912, and resulted in a jury retirement of precisely one hour. Seddon was convicted. His wife was acquitted. Seddon was sentenced to death. His appeal was heard 16 days later, eight days before RMS Titanic sailed, and took two days. It was dismissed. Seddon was hanged at HM Prison, Pentonville, 16 days after the appeal and three days after the Titanic sank.

I thought I should record these brief facts to compare them with my present murder trial on circuit. There are also two defendants. We have been going two months and have yet to end the prosecution’s case. I have no doubt that it will be at least three more weeks until the jury retires and then days, possibly weeks, will elapse before we get a verdict.

This case is not circumstantial. Most of it is viewable on CCTV and there are a series of rather unfortunate lies in interview. I am doing my best, of course, but I fear the outcome is inevitable.

I shall draw a veil over whose fault it is, but let us say that some of the technological aspects of the case have lacked the smooth transmission doubtless promised by those salesman who manage to flog these things to their best and most gullible customer, HM Government. Added to this has been the usual regiment of feral witnesses whose absence from court is only faced when it occurs, as opposed to the pre-emptive strikes favoured in days gone by.

Our judge, jolly Judge Valentine, did his best to look efficient to begin with, clutching those ghastly Criminal Procedure Rules and uttering dire imprecations about wasted costs, but that soon wore off. He lacks the atmosphere of terror induced by a Red Judge.

Juniors come in all shapes and sizes. The very worst juniors are the senior ones, the over-ripe apples, who have busy practices. On the rare occasions you see them, they are always very affable and supportive, but within minutes of the trial starting you get about 20 requests that they need to be here, there and everywhere. If you are really unlucky, they will have another trial mid-way through your epic, resulting in absence for days or weeks. They are happy to discuss tactics, but, within seconds, the obligatory smartphone will be cascading text messages, voicemails and e-correspondence. They resist for a second, then take the wretched thing down some lengthy corridor and the next person you see is the usher, telling you the judge is coming in.

My present junior, a right Granny Smith, is one Colin Craigie, whose whole life is conditioned by bleeps, bells and bursts of mobile music. I have allowed him to go all points North, South, East and West. My only condition was that I would leave after making my speech, to be in time for my next trial. “No problem!” I was told. “Shouldn’t think the jury will be that long.” Yesterday he told me that he would not, in fact, be around at that stage.

When I began my practising life, juries had to stay together in retirement until the verdict. Most reached a verdict within one day. If not, a night at a hotel was enough.
Then someone had the bright idea that juries could go home every night. That, combined with increasingly incomprehensible and detailed directions and ludicrous prohibitions on any kind of pressure, means that instead of being able to ask themselves the question as to whether the prosecution has proved its case, they embark on some endless inquiry and talk themselves out of reaching decisions.

It is not just the huge drain on public resources to which I object, but the fact that no one can sensibly assess the length of a substantial trial any more and nothing gives rise to more complaints and dissatisfaction than late returns of instructions. Andrew, my senior clerk, calls it the Gaviscon stage of a trial. I need another one right now. ?

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