The way we were

glen.circuits

A reflection on the way life for a barrister on the circuits used to be.

Listening to (Lord) Jeremy Hutchinson on Desert Island Discs led me to recall life at independent criminal bar at its best. Anyone charged with a serious offence could walk into a High Street firm and any High Street firm could call on the services of Jeremy. The public money involved was well spent and never really questioned. Good quality advocates got to the real points in a case and addressed them directly. Time was saved. Justice is always done when high quality barristers oppose each other.


In our system everyone used to be entitled to the best advocates. Criminal Justice was blind to social class.

In 1979, I joined the chambers of Peter Fallon Q.C. Barristers in those days were not permitted to advertise (or "tout" for work). The prohibition extended to social contact with solicitors. We had to build our practices on word of mouth but not words from our mouths. Sets of chambers were colleges of like-minded practitioners who supported each other and frequently lunched together. We were no more corporate than a group of surgeons sharing a secretary and a set of rooms. No one would have called this a "business model". We were professional in the old fashioned sense of that word and we considered ourselves above the mere considerations of business. If we had been answerable to shareholders, they would have been horrified by our failure to maximize profit and the time we "lost" on good causes. Our simple aim was to have happy professional lives. Every evening we gathered for a glass of wine to discuss the day’s dramas and look forward to the next. Chambers had a "steward of the bottle" who maintained chilled stocks. We also had an active cricket team playing twenty-over matches on summer evenings. The team included Ladies as well as Gentlemen under the thoughtful captaincy of John Royce. The Bristol Bar had a golfing team and occasionally played rugby and football.

Peter Fallon’s forte was personal injury. His strong reputation guaranteed us work from the best defence insurers. Visiting Q.B. Judges would try factory trippers and slippers with quantum as low as £5,000. Even in crime we frequently appeared before High Court Judges, the majority of whom went on to preside in the Court of Appeal. Most of us did personal injury mixed with both sides of crime. We would accept other work too. Undefended divorces were a good source of income especially with a fistful of briefs in the same list. I once did an Admiralty case in Gloucester County Court. Our chambers did not permit a practice in crime alone.

The Bar Council had little relevance to our professional lives. None of us was a member of the C.B.A. It was the Western Circuit that mattered. The leader was Sir Peter Rawlinson Q.C. (former Attorney-General). Through the Circuit, appointments were made to the Bench and to silk. Silk was rationed to ensure that those appointed had work.

The generalist was respected as a noble polymath who could turn his mind to any legal problem and bring talented pleading and advocacy skills to bear upon it. If you wanted a lateral view on a difficult problem, the generalist was your man. I remember my first fingerprint case. The criminal boys offered no hope but Chris Gosland suggested that I cross-examine the fingerprint expert to dispute (if possible) the various points of similarity. I can still see the Judge’s expression when the not guilty verdict was returned. A pen slammed down from the judgment seat is very encouraging to the green young barrister.

On Circuit self-regard was not tolerated. The slightest sign of self-importance was firmly sat upon. Incurable cases could not prosper. They were forced to move to London or (in some cases) return there.

In 1979, the average solicitor sold solutions not hours. We all did lots of "no fee" work, sometimes taking one for the team. I can recall a one case in which a floating restaurant was threatened with towing away. We discussed the problem with the client and decided that the threat was groundless and nothing need be done unless and until the police made a move. Calling the bluff of the police usually worked. Within a short time a new box of licensing inspectors would be opened. A fresh view would be taken. It did not occur to us to charge for "wait and see" advice. There was, of course, the priceless satisfaction of driving past the floating restaurant five, ten and fifteen years later (and even today, thirty years on).

The C.P.S. had not been invented. Bristol had a Town Clerk’s prosecution department with three very able prosecutors (Lovibond, Drew and Davies). In Bath and other circuit towns the police instructed High Street solicitors, who were highly competent. Police officers still prosecuted in Magistrates’ Courts.

The cab rank principle was fully operative. Legal aid fees were adequate and deemed to be so. The law required that legal aid fees provide "reasonable remuneration". We never discussed money.

There were no skeleton arguments. Every Judge knew his stuff and so did counsel. Submissions were always brief. Abuse of process had not yet caught on, nor had the warehouse of disclosure become a problem. We were not permitted to suggest figures for imprisonment or quantum of damages.

We had a thriving medico-legal society, socialising with expert witnesses in orthopaedics, psychiatry and pathology. Both of my children were delivered under the supervision of a leading consultant who charged no fee. We knew the court staff, press and probation officers well. The press reporters were aware of every case but I recall some circumstances where the editor of the local paper was persuaded to prevent publicity where it would have caused exceptional damage to the defendant.. Security at all Courts was handled by serving police officers. They also dealt with evidence of antecedents. The prison permitted counsel to consult with clients on the wing in the evenings. We were never searched or sniffed by dogs. Everyone treated everyone else as a respected member of one fully joined-up Justice system.

At the Bar rivalry was huge, especially between the empire builders but we were learned friends in Court, where courtesy hardly ever failed.

The judges were not homogenised. Their predilections had to be studied and understood. Judges were the main topic of conversation in robing rooms. No foible could be hidden from the fearless independent Bar. In Swindon Crown Court there were two stairways from cells to courtroom. One stairway led up to Mark Dyer; the other to Desmond Vowden. Sometimes you floated on the horns of that fascinating dilemma.

Ian Glen QC

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