The tribunal was a monstrous harridan whom I failed to process had been retired for decades. “You come here,” she screamed, “dressed like a scarecrow that has been dragged through a hedge backwards with neither instructions nor client. Explain yourself, you fat pig!” This was my moment. I could tell this hag what I really thought of her. Curiously, and simultaneously, I felt I should be sitting where she was. I opened my mouth but my throat constricted and there was no sound. My heart was pounding as though it would explode. Then I awoke, sweating and with a racing heart, to a mouthful of duvet and a lingering resentment that I had missed a golden opportunity. I looked at my clock. It was 9.30am. I was starting my sitting as a Recorder at a local Crown Court. Why, oh why, had I gone out for dinner with my brother and his twin sons, my nephews, who bear an uncanny resemblance to John and Edward in The X Factor?
Somehow I got to the court and, after an agonising wait while one security officer had to find another to let me “airside”, I rushed into my judicial chambers where George, my fantastic usher, had a strong coffee at the ready. “You’ve got ten minutes, your Honour,” he said. “The defendant’s only just staggered in and I can’t find prosecuting counsel.”
I robed quickly and opened a manila folder containing the case papers – a guilty plea. I read the pre-sentence report with increasing nervousness as I noted recommendations for sentences of which I had never heard. If only I had paid more attention at my last residential seminar for the Judicial Studies Board and not been tempted to eat out at a delightful little French restaurant near the conference centre the night before the sentencing exercises. Clutching the estimable Dr Thomas’ Sentencing Referencer, I began to wonder if there was any conceivable way I could master another yearly load of sentencing changes in the few minutes left before kick-off.
I entered court with trepidation and, after we had all bowed to each other at the wrong moment, I noticed the advocates. There was a very smart looking young solicitor-advocate representing the defendant: a depressed looking woman in her fifties who was twisting her fingers in the dock. The prosecuting advocate was now bending down and rootling through papers. Eventually she looked up and I noticed, with alarm, that it was Henrietta Briar-Pitt. Henrietta is, of course, our horsewoman in chambers.
She gave me a conspiratorial look. I hate having members of chambers in front of me. They think I am going to be nice …“Well,” she said breezily, “I take it your Honour is familiar with the basic facts.” “They must be opened fully, Miss Briar-Pitt,” I replied, hoping she was not reading my mind.
She said something that sounded like “humpf” and looked at her papers and then at me with a knowing shake of the head. It appeared that her papers, like mine, were in a manila folder instead of the conventional brief. This proved unfortunate as, when she opened it, both sides dropped and the whole untagged mess sprayed over counsel’s row. Failing to ask for a necessary short adjournment, she staggered instead through a bumbling opening, without outlining any of the facts supporting various charges of social security fraud. I could not understand a word of it. Mr Samson, the young solicitor-advocate, corrected her sotto voce, took me through the relevant facts in mitigation, explained what a suspended sentence now meant and led me like a lamb through what I needed to do and say. I was so grateful I could have kissed him.
When I regained the judge’s chambers, George announced “Hetty B-P” (as he called her) wanted a word. She galloped in and announced: “now you see what the Bar is facing!” I rather hoped I did not. Then a more disturbing thought flitted into my mind. Would people one day have nightmares about me?
William Byfield is the pseudonym of a senior member of the Bar. Gutteridge Chambers, and the events that happen there, are entirely fictitious.