Friday, 5 October 2007

Animal magic

We in the legal trade spend so much time moaning about ridiculous new (and sometimes old) legislation, it's refreshing to learn of the government implementing a fantastic new law which can only benefit the nation. In case readers have missed it, you now no longer need a licence to keep all sorts of interesting pets. Having been shot down in flames at court today I was in need of being cheered up, and learning that I can stop off at my local pet centre and pick up a squirrel monkey or even an emu on the way home did the trick!

It almost makes up for the fact that I'm not one of the two thousand lawyers (or thereabouts) involved in the Diana Inquest, which is a constant source of disappointment at the moment. What other case could involve six months of speculating about conspiracy theories and a trip to gai Paris to boot? Mind you, I did go to Cardiff for a day recently, so mustn't grumble...

Monday, 17 September 2007

The nights are drawing in...

Summer, such as it was, is at an end, kids are back at school ( ha ha!) and there's an undeniable chill in the air but at least the traditional August lull in work is over. I've been so busy these last couple of weeks I haven't had time for all sorts of essentials, one of which is blogging - sorry! On the plus side, it's always nice to be busy when you're self-employed.

Although for once I don't have much to complain about, this is a stressful time of year for many people. Pupillage interviews are causing some would-be barristers untold misery (I'll wait until a decent interval has passed before blogging about ours, just in case some hapless soul thinks, rightly or wrongly, that they recognise themself and gets even more depressed about the whole affair). Elsewhere, the quest for tenancy is causing sleepless nights for others, including the scheming Baby Barista and the thoroughly deserving Pupilblogger. Fingers crossed for both of them, and best of luck to any readers currently worrying about pupillage or tenancy!

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Phone a friend

One of the few remaining perks of being learned counsel is that you don't have members of the public approaching you directly to chat about their legal woes. (Unless you do public access work, that is, but even then you're not at risk of being called by just anyone.) The beauty of being a member of a referral profession is that you only really have day to day dealings with solicitors. Sadly, no such filter exists to protect us from friends and relatives. I've lost count of the number of times someone I know has called on me for some free legal advice. Invariably, they begin by saying something like, "I hope you don't mind, but I'm in a bit of a mess and I could really do with some advice, it won't take long..." And then they launch into a long-winded explanation of some legal quandary that's making their life a misery.

This will almost certainly involve an area of law that you know nothing about. If I asked a medical type for his opinion on a broken leg and he replied that he only worked in dermatology, I'd accept it. When it comes to lawyers, however, people think that you should be an expert in all areas of law. If you tell them you don't know anything about, say, wills, they think either that you're lying or that you can't be any good at your job after all. If, unusually, their problem concerns an area you are familiar with, there are still loads of problems. Leaving aside the vast professional conduct issues (direct access, insurance etc...), people never give you a coherent account of what their problem is.

All of this is most annoying when the pest is someone you hardly know, wanting advice without paying for it, but families can be almost as bad. I spent ages on the phone to my cousin over the weekend, alternating between telling him I couldn't advise him and listening to his rambling account of his evil landlord's latest misdeeds. Of course, when I finally relented and agreed to look through the paperwork with him - on a strictly informal basis, mind! - it was obvious he'd inadvertently told me a complete load of rubbish and the situation was entirely different to the one he'd described.

It's not just lawyers who have to put up with this kind of thing. My mother used to be a nurse and was constantly being pestered by people for advice. She got so fed up with it that she told people she'd just met that she worked in the sock department for Bhs. I think I might have to come up with a similar lie...

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Client Care

Those of us whose practice areas demand that we go to court on an almost daily basis spend a fair amount of time dealing with clients. This is, to say the least, a mixed blessing. Some of them are lovely, though they are few and far between. Others, most in fact, are pleasant enough to deal with, even if you wouldn't necessarily choose to spend any more time than necessary with them. A small but significant minority are just horrible. For the uninitiated, ways in which clients can fall into this category include:

1. Smelling
2. Moaning and complaining about things you have no power to do anything about (often something going on in prison) then getting annoyed when you can't fix it
3. Arguing with everything you say
4.Trying to justify what they've done in a really inappropriate way which often includes racist, sexist and/or homophobic comments

Numbers 1 and 4 applied to today's client. Like many people with appalling personal hygiene, he kept insisting on shaking mine and my solicitor's hands (over the last few years, I've noticed that the more a client smells, the more likely they are to want to shake your hand). A good way around this is to constantly carry as many papers and books as possible but today that made the situation even worse. When he held out his hand I indicated my pile of books and gave what I hoped was a rueful "would if I could" look. In response, he leaned in and gave me a smacker on the cheek. It was so sudden and unexpected, I never stood a chance. They never warned me about this on the BVC...

Friday, 13 July 2007

Farewell to wigs

The inevitable has happened and the wig is to be abolished, at least in civil and family cases. As of January 1st 2008 only judges sitting in criminal courts will have to wear the wig and traditional gown. Civil and family judges will wear a simple, zip-up (yuck!) gown instead. I've said it before and I'll say it again, I think this is a mistake. Newly appointed civil and family judges, who won't need their new gear very long, are advised to save themselves a few pennies and shop around.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007


China has executed Zheng Xiaoyu, former head of their Food and Drug Asociation, for accepting bribes to approve untested drugs. Although the consequences of what he did were tragic (at least 10 people died after taking a fake drug) the sentence is shocking and ought to be condemned. Even more horrifying was Tehran's confirmation that a man has been stoned to death for adultery. It's hard to imagine a more unpleasant method of execution, or a "crime" less deserving of it. Whatever the failings of our own justice system, I for one am very pleased to live in a country that doesn't have the death penalty.

Save our hedgehogs!

Great Yarmouth Magistrates Court is currently home to a high-profile case involving the heroic prosecution of a merciless hedgehog-slayer. Whilst the police, the RSPCA and the HSE were too lazy and uncaring to prosecute this 63-year old fiend for the heinous crime of trying to do his job, Defra had no such wimpish qualms. Some bleeding-heart liberals will no doubt argue that prosecuting Mr Whiley is over the top and that, although rat poison is a dangerous substance whose unintended victims are often cuter that its intended prey, this could all have been sorted out without the need to spend thousands of pounds from the public purse pursuing the matter through the courts. I'm not fooled though. Throw the book at him, I say! If only other goverment departments put taxpayers' money to such excellent use.

Monday, 2 July 2007


Well, it's the first weekday of the new anti-smoking laws and already the smokers in Chambers are plotting ways to flout the ban. We used to have a smoking room but now its patrons are being forced out onto the streets like the reviled social pariahs they are. Before the ban came in there was much discussion as to whether a set of chambers really constitutes a workplace. The answer seemed fairly obvious to the non-smoking majority - we may be self-employed but we employ clerks, admin staff and cleaners so, yes, Chambers is a workplace. After much huffing and puffing about the Nanny State and the freedom of the individual (and, in fairness, making some good points on both those topics), the smokers reluctantly agreed.

This afternoon I caught one die-hard smoker sheltering from the rain and having a sneaky fag in the doorway to our building, which is expressly forbidden, on pain of a public flogging. I grinned at him in a "your secret's safe with me" way and he looked a bit sheepish. We then started chatting about the maximum penalties for smoking in prohibited places, not displaying a "no smoking" sign and other related criminal acts. Neither of us had a clue, though I think I remember something about a £50 fixed penalty. Note to self... must take more interest in the law. Especially laws on which everybody seems to have a very strong opinion. Everybody apart from me, that is. I'm glad that my days of waking up stinking of smoke the morning after a night out will soon be a distant memory, but in the great scheme of things, I'm almost ashamed to admit that I lost interest in the smoking debate ages ago.

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Out with the old, in with the new

Not only does our fine nation have a brand new Prime Minister, but I arrived in Chambers today to find an email about a brand new form in my inbox. I am, of course, referring to the Plea and Sentence Form, which prosecutors will need to fill in before the Plea and Case Management Hearing as of two days ago. Good old Lord Goldsmith - just as I was getting my head round the voluminous new PCMH form he spices our lives up again by giving us all yet more work to do and judges yet another reason to give CPS an ear-bashing when the inevitable happens and people forget to fill it in. Apparently, judges aren't getting enough input from the prosecution when it comes to sentence. It used to be enough to open the facts of an offence, deal with previous convictions, sentencing powers and, if relevant, point out that the defendant is liable to banged up indefinitely if deemed dangerous. Now we will have to list the aggravating and mitigating factors, inform the judge of sentencing guidelines and relevant case law and say whether or not there is a victim impact statement.

All of this will take time and effort, which won't be reflected in either CPS salaries or counsels' brief fees and which will be wasted in the event that the defendant pleads not guilty at the PCMH and is acquitted at trial. In addition, most judges are perfectly able to seize on what aggravating and mitigating factors there are, not to mention what sentencing powers they have, without counsel writing it all down in a form for them. In complex cases where they require input from counsel, they aren't generally shy about asking for it and in such cases, most advocates would anticipate this in advance of the sentencing hearing. Finally, I can't help but feel bad about the huge amount of extra paper that will be used. Will somebody please think of the trees?

Well that's my moan of the day over. As always, any comments welcome!

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Time flies...

Dear me, has it really been over a month? Sorry to be gone so long. I was away on holiday for a couple of weeks (very decadent, I know) and in the three weeks I've been back I've been sent all over the place and never seem to get round to updating my blog. I suspect that this is how clerks pay barristers back for taking time off - booking us into work miles away.

So what's new? Again, we're being reminded of the crisis in our prisons, which are now so over-crowded that court cells are on standby to house people in custody. All this week, the courts I've been in have been delayed by prisoners being brought from the other side of the country and arriving late. Mind you, there's never been a better time to be facing sentence!

One of the things keeping me busy lately is my newly-started civil practice, which is a mixed bag and now accounts for about 10-15% of my work. As many people warned me, it is a steep learning curve. At times I feel like a pupil again but I've got a couple of unofficial mentors in chambers who are a great help and, by and large, I'm enjoying it. Not as much as I enjoy anything involving sex, drugs and violence, but it's early days yet. One of the things I really like about civil work is that the briefs tend to be better prepared (sorry to any criminal solicitors - I know you don't have the funding you need) and there is no doubt that the money's far better. Nothing like selling your soul...

Friday, 18 May 2007

"Fat chicks are more grateful"

I hope that this report of a defence barrister's conduct in a rape trial contained a lot of inaccuracies. It's often unattractive to run consent when the circumstances of an alleged rape are horrible (in this case, the two 16-year-old victims are said to have had their phones taken then been repeatedly raped by three younger teenagers in a park), but if you're defending you have to follow your client's instructions. There is, however, a way of doing these things in a sensitive and professional way, and suggesting that the complainant was so fat at the time that she was grateful for the defendant's attention seems unlikely to win many jurors over!

Of course, the press frequently get things wrong or out of context - why, a few years ago the beagle herself was described as "daft" by one local rag! However, at face value this seems to be a glowing example of a barrister going far too far and giving the rest of us a bad name.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Shock findings

Apparently, magistrates ignore expert reports when sentencing young offenders, preferring to rely on their own "common sense" and defendants' backgrounds and previous convictions when determining sentence. Even more staggeringly, young offenders admit lying to both the courts and other bodies, like Youth Offending Teams, in an attempt to avoid harsher sentences. Jo Phoenix of Bath University, who conducted this ground-breaking research, fears that magistrates are relying on "little more than stereotypes" when making decisions. Obviously, they should be placing more importance on these expert reports, notwithstanding the possibility that the defendant has lied to the author in the hope of receiving a lesser sentence.

I'm not saying that magistrates always get it right - far from it. However, whilst they shouldn't just ignore YOT reports, they ought to be allowed to draw on their own experience and use their own discretion too. Otherwise there's not much point having them at all. Now there's a thought...

Thankfully, at least there is only reference to this being a problem in the Youth Court, so I can continue in my blissful delusion that the Crown Court is untroubled by such horrors as dishonest defendants and judges purporting to use their own common sense.

Friday, 4 May 2007

Straight from the horse's mouth

Unusually, I didn't read the paper until yesterday evening so missed the story about the Michael Symes, a juror on the terrorism trial. I've often wondered how jurors cope with being on long trials both in terms of the inevitable disruption of their normal lives and the strange experience of being thrown together with eleven other random people for weeks or months. Ever since lawyers became eligible for jury service, I've always had a hankering to be summonsed. I'm yet to be convinced that having lawyers and judges on juries is an entirely good idea but I'd love a behind-the-scenes glimpse of what goes on in jury rooms.

The closest I'd previously come to this was when a friend's mum was called for jury service a couple of years ago. She told me that they'd found the defendant not guilty as they were only about 80% sure of his guilt, which was reassuring as it showed they'd actually listened to directions about the standard of proof. More alarming was that she and her fellow jurors had agreed that the defence barrister was pompous and had an annoying voice and that the prosecution barrister had tried too hard to suck up to the jury in her speech. Food for thought...

Despite the worrying reports of jurors pulling sickies and generally dragging proceedings out whenever possible, it seems that the terrorism trial jurors took their responsibilities seriously and, broadly speaking, the article reaffirmed my faith in the jury system. Interestingly, Mr Symes was glad not to have been told of the links between the defendants in his case and the July 7th bombers, saying that it was "probably best to be objective in evidence". When the law changed on adducing defendants' (and others') bad character many criminal lawyers were worried that this objectivity would be lost, so it was nice to see that in this case the right decision seemed to have been taken.

I wasn't sure what to make of his desire to be a full-time juror though - what's the betting he applies to be a magistrate in the not too distant future?

Thursday, 3 May 2007

Sex, lies and videotape

Or DVDs, actually. Today I finished a very harrowing trial involving a series of sexual offences against two children; what is commonly referred to as a "filth case". These are always depressing whichever side you're on and whether the defendant is found guilty or not as there is usually some deeply disturbing family backdrop to the whole sorry situation. This case was no different - the children had clearly been severely damaged long before my client came on the scene and thoughtfully undertook to give then numerous practical lessons in anatomy. My client had a very sad childhood history himself involving neglect, abuse, a string of foster placements and several youthful brushes with law. The evidence was fairly overwhelming but he strenuously denied all the allegations. The jury were out for just over an hour before he was convicted of all six counts. He told me afterwards he had always expected to be found guilty, though maintained that everybody was lying.

The allegations weren't the most sordid I'd ever come across but for some reason, I found the case particularly heavy-going. After the DVD of the first kid had been played (young and vulnerable witnesses are generally filmed being interviewed by police officers rather than making statements, then the video/DVD is played in court, then they are cross-examined over a live videolink) one of the jurors asked for a break, which didn't seem a great sign! Anyway, I did my best throughout the trial and I was pleasantly surprised that my punter didn't come across all that badly when he gave evidence, but none of it was enough to save his skin.

Now why, exactly, am I bothered about this? I worked as hard as I could have done and, though I'm sure there are many who are more able than I am, I think I did a reasonable job, so it's not a case of regretting something in particular that I did or didn't do in the trial. And although I love winning trials (we all do, however gracious we manage to be about it), losing one doesn't normally depress me like this. Being a hardened professional (hmmm...), I don't really feel too bad about cross-examining the kids and calling them liars, though I didn't take any great pleasure in it either. Maybe it was just the sadness of the whole situation. Or maybe I'm going soft. People always ask barristers how we can bear to defend sex offenders and I always give the same answers that I expect everyone else does - innocent until proven otherwise, right to representation, equality of arms, etc etc. Today, however, I'm glad that I'm still junior enough for nasty sex cases to come along relatively infrequently.

On the plus side, my dabbling in the world of civil law is going quite well ("Turbulent times...") so perhaps my days of this sort of stress may one day be over (quite possibly only to be replaced by different sorts of stress, but variety is the spice of life!). Even better, we are one day away from a bank holiday weekend and Mr Beagle and I are going away for a couple of days. Hopefully I'll return full of energy and enthusiasm and my next post will be a departure from all this moaning and whining!

Thursday, 26 April 2007

Letting the side down

Last weekend I went to the CBA (Criminal Bar Association) Conference in the lovely city of Birmingham. I had been looking forward to it for some time, partly because I’m fond of Brum, partly because it was lots of CPD points for relatively little cash and partly (or mostly) because it meant a city-break with my best buddy (also a criminal hack) who will henceforth be nicknamed Partner in Crime.

On Saturday morning we sat down in a Birmingham University lecture theatre for the first talk, given by none other than the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith QC. I’d seen him speak a couple of years previously at a Young Bar event (we barristers know how to live!) and had enjoyed it, so my hopes were high. How wrong I was! Firstly, there was absolutely no hint of enthusiasm on his part. His speech was delivered in a dry, tediously soporific monotone as though the last couple of years had drained all the life out of him. (Perhaps they had. Maybe if he’s feeling the pressure, he should step down from the process of deciding whether or not to prosecute his mates, but I digress…) Worse, though, was the subject matter.

Many criminal barristers have been tearing their hair out at the recent proliferation of CPS Higher Courts Advocates (HCAs). These in-house lawyers have started doing a great deal of crown court hearings. It started with preliminary hearings, but has spread to PCMHs (Plea and Case Management Hearings, for the uninitiated), committals for sentence and (eek!) even the odd trial! Some of these are very good advocates and even more are very nice people. But there are some who are, frankly, awful and they are snaffling a lot of work. The most annoying thing is that they conduct PCMHs and only brief counsel if the defendant enters a not guilty plea and there needs to be a trial. Then you get a case that hasn’t been prepared properly in its early stages, since the person preparing it has missed obvious points.

The AG droned on at length about how brilliant CPS were and how well these “employed barristers” were doing. There is, we were told, only one Bar, which encompasses both self-employed (i.e. proper) barristers and those who work in house. Gerenally speaking, I don't really object to this. Then he went on to hint that it is mean-spirited for the self-employed Bar to resent those with the same qualifications as us gaining the same experience, including conducting trials. I don’t resent people with the same qualifications as me doing the same or better work. What I resent is people who tried and failed to succeed in a Chambers (or as a solicitor advocate), joining the CPS as part of their “we’ll take anyone” recruitment drive and doing work of a far higher level than CPS would ever have allowed them to do had they remained in private practice.

There were other subjects too, but I should probably move on. After he’d finished his speech he left straight away without taking any questions. A canny move and lucky escape, as tensions were running high. Partner in Crime was on the edge of her seat, itching to give him a piece or her mind! Happily, the day improved and in the course of it there were some great lectures. The AG was immediately followed by the shadow AG, Dominic Grieve, who was a brilliant speaker, though perhaps more anecdotal than he could have been. He also spoke against the AG’s suggestion that junior criminal barristers might one day as a matter of course train in CPS and spend a few years there before moving into the self-employed Bar. The day wasn’t supposed to be political, but I think he might have won the Conservatives a few votes. I, a lifelong leftie, shuddered to think that the unthinkable may be happening – I have lost so much faith in our government due to the mess it's making of the criminal justice system that I may be turning Tory. To think it should come to this…

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

Back to school

For most of us, today was the first day back in court after a four-day Easter break. Maybe it's partly because the sun was shining outside, but there was a real gloominess about the Crown Court I was in, just like the beginning of a new school term. As well as chatting about what we'd been up to over Easter and general robing room gossip, there was some discussion about reported plans to abolish wigs in civil, family and commercial proceedings. Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers (the Lord Chief Justice) has declared that they contribute to the public perception that lawyers and judges are out of touch. Wigs and gowns will, however, continue to be worn in criminal cases. Obviously it doesn't matter whether or not people unfortunate enough to become involved in either side of the criminal justice system think that lawyers and judges are out of touch!

I have mixed feelings about court dress. On the one hand, robes are another thing to carry around and in summer are not the most comfortable thing to wear. In one of my recent forays into the civil courts a judge decided to dispense with robes, which I quite liked. On the other hand, they do help maintain anonymity to a certain, albeit limited, degree. I've been told several times by clients who see me without my wig and gown on that they barely recognise me. Also, wigs are a great leveller. When you're two minutes' call and up against somebody who's been at the Bar longer than you've been alive it somehow helps that you're dressed the same - not just because it improves your confidence but because it improves your client's confidence in you. It's quite difficult to be taken seriously by some old lags when you're a fresh-faced young thing (oddly, this is a problem I've experienced less and less lately) and wearing a wig definitely helps.

On balance, I'm in favour of keeping wigs and gowns. I know that tradition alone is not a reason to hang onto something pointless but once traditions are dispensed with there's no going back. And for all that they're old-fashioned and odd-looking, wearing a wig does mean you don't have to make any effort with your hair in the morning and if that isn't a good reason to keep them, I don't know what is.

Tuesday, 3 April 2007

The Old Guard v Ally

Like most other sets, the Chambers I'm in has a real variety of people as members. Being a friendly sort of person, I get on with most other tenants - in fact, I can only think of one person I actively dislike. There is, however, a small but influential group that frequently annoys me. All its members are middle-aged or slightly older men who love nothing more than a good old moan either about how the Bar's not what it used to be or about petty Chambers problems. Being fond of a good moaning session myself (especially about work), I could forgive them this, but there are also strong elements of sexism and classism in these people. I think of the group as The Old Guard, which I suspect they would quite like.

The other day, I was minding my own business catching up on some papers when one of The Old Guard entered. Most people knock before going into each others' rooms but this chap didn't, which irritated me slightly. "Ah, beagle! Got a minute?" he boomed and before I could say, "no, not really," he was settling himself into my roommate's chair and telling me he needed to talk to me about Ally.

Ally (so nick-named in tribute to my inspiration, Ms McBeal) is one of our two pupils and has recently started her second six. She and I have always got on very well and, whilst I haven't seen her in court yet, I think she will do well. I wondered whether this old buffer had been against her on a mention or something and formed a different view. Alas, nothing so straight-forward...

Turns out she'd started wearing (gasp!) knee-high boots to work. The Old Guard were horrified at this and thought that I should have a word with her. I suggested that her pupil master might be a better person than me, but he was adamant it should be a fellow "young woman". I didn't think it was appropriate for me to start lecturing pupils on how to dress and, whilst I hadn't seen these boots, she always looks perfectly smart to me anyway. Old Buffer then asked me if I would have a look at the boots in question and say whether I thought they were appropriate or not. I said I was too busy and he went out in a huff.

Ten minutes later, there was a knock on the door and Ally entered, saying that Old Buffer had told her I wanted to speak to her. Furious with him (though at the same time grudgingly admiring of the old pro) I made up some nonsense about pupillage checklists and, trying not to be too obvious, studied the boots. Unfortunately they did look a bit tarty, so now I have to choose between openly agreeing with The Old Guard or siding with Ally.

When I started this job I knew I would have to make some tough decisions but I never thought they would involve passing judgment on pupils' footwear. Hopefully I'll manage to avoid The Old Guard long enough for them to find something else to get upset about.

Friday, 23 March 2007

Turbulent times

Ever since pupillage, I've only ever really done criminal work. As many people involved in this area know, we criminal hacks currently live in troubled times. Not only is there widespread unrest about fees (things are set to change next month when the long-awaited new fees structure comes into operation), there is also less work around than previously. This is largely due to the CPS having employed a number of in-house advocates (HCAs, which stands for Higher Courts Advocates) who are covering an increasing amount of work. So what's the beagle to do?

Part of me (in fact, most of me) wants to just ride this rough period out and trust that things will improve. Inevitably, the criminal bar will shrink and hopefully people who stick things out now will be OK in the future. I did think about jumping ship and looking for an in-house job, but that was just a moment of madness. So I've hatched a secret plan to tide me over.

I had a discreet chat to some civil colleagues and our two civil clerks and am about to start taking on civil work. At 5 years' call I reckon I'm still just about junior enough to start a new area of practice. I have made it clear that I only want easy cases to begin with and that I still want to keep my criminal practice going. Next week I have a fast track trial, which seems simple enough, though I might well be missing a crucial point or two! It's a contractual dispute over a few grands' worth of unpaid invoices. I've dug out my civil notes from the BVC and borrowed a copy of the Civil Procedure Rules. How hard can it be? Either I'll crash and burn, in which case I'll develop a new respect for my civil colleagues, or I'll add an extra string to my bow which can't be a bad thing. Maybe I'll grow to love commercial disputes, though I'll be surprised if they're as much fun as jury trials. Watch this space...

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

The beagle is back

Apologies for such a long absence! I spent the whole of last week prosecuting a trial at a court miles away and never seemed to find time to blog. The trial was all about a big feud between neighbours which culminated in a night of wanton violence. As is usually the case, the winners were prosecuted! We had all sorts of fun during the trial, including jurors making complaints about witnesses following them, the officer in the case mistakenly telling witnesses there was nothing to prevent them sitting in the public gallery before they gave their evidence (thankfully the CPS rep managed to stop them in the nick of time) and, best of all, the Legal Beagle and CPS rep being told by the complainant that they were "just as bad as the pigs". Charming! On the plus side, I had a lovely opponent and the fact that the trial overran by two days prevented me from doing all sorts of other bits of rubbish on Thursday and Friday.

Regular readers (assuming I have any) will know that I was dreading a trip to the Court of Appeal (see Would your lordships give me a moment?). The much-worried-about hearing took place a week and a half ago. Happily, the appeal was allowed, though their lordships did describe the goings on in the court below as "unhappy circumstances" which was mildly embarrassing! All in all, it went far better than expected and I left court wondering why I'd fretted about it quite so much. I do wonder if I'll ever reach a stage in my career where I don't have the sort of nervous panics that are better suited to somebody about to get on their feet for the very first time. I really hope so!

Monday, 5 March 2007

Monday misery...

I have had an entirely pointless morning today. After spending a significant amount of the weekend preparing a trial, I arrived at court bright and early this morning and after a chat to my opponent, a nice woman I hadn't met properly before, I set off to the cells to see if my client had arrived on the prison van. So far as today's case was concerned he's been on bail but he was in custody for other matters at another court. The staff in the cells said he wasn't there and they weren't expecting him. My solicitor then arrived at court bearing the news that, yes, he had been in custody on other matters but he had been granted bail on Friday. Unfortunately for him (and for me) he had been arrested at his home address on Saturday morning and was being taken to a Magistrates court about 60 miles away this morning (when the police arrest people over the weekend and keep them in custody, they need to be produced at the local Magistrates court on Monday morning). So my trial had to be adjourned. When this sort of thing happens in civil cases, the barristers still get paid their brief fee. Not so in crime - I shall get paid the princely sum of £46.50 for my efforts. Aside from my financial gripes and wasted weekend, all the witnesses came to court, the court itself will now be empty today and this sorry mess will cost quite a bit of public money.

It's not all rosy for my civil brethren, though. I got back to Chambers to find a colleague looking very annoyed. He'd been sent the papers last week for a personal injury case due to be heard tomorrow. He'd prepared it fully and had even sent a written advice, only to receive a telephone call from the solicitors this morning asking for the brief back as they'd sent duplicate instructions to somebody in another set of Chambers a month ago but only realised their mistake this morning! This means he's likely to be out of court tomorrow (as I may well be too - my trial was supposed to last 2 days!). Technically, he'd be entitled to bill his solicitors the agreed fee since it's entirely their mistake. I think he ought to do this, not only because he deserves to be paid but also because it might mean the solicitors are more careful next time. Others think that in order to keep the solicitors sweet he should either bill half or nothing at all. I can see their point, but if they have any principles at all, they should have no objection to paying up.

All in all, not a very good start to the week!

Sunday, 4 March 2007

Want a pupillage? Then read this...

Being a junior(ish) criminal barrister, I'm always up for thankless tasks which are both time-consuming and tedious. This is why I am on our Chambers' pupillage committee. The closing date for applications isn't until summer but they are already pouring in. Although we consider them all at the same time, after the closing date, I do flick through them as they arrive before filing them away. As anybody on the legal scene knows, competition for pupillages is fierce and applicants need to stand out. We get loads of great applications and it saddens me that many good candidates will be unlucky as there simply aren't enough places for everybody. We also get a fair few applications which don't make it very far in the selection process. Some of these are just awful and I have a fair amount of sympathy for the people who send them, as they have invested a lot of time and money in a career which, realistically, is unachievable. Others are let down by a few basic errors. As this is the time of year when future barristers (and future McDonald's employees) start sweating over their pupillage applications, I thought I'd try to help by highlighting some of the most common mistakes applicants make and giving some advice on how to improve applications. So here we go with some top tips for pupillage success:

1. Learn when to use "practice" and when to use "practise";

2. Learn how to spell "pupillage" (yes, really);

3. Make sure you know what Chambers are asking for. We ask for a handwritten covering letter but every year about 25% of the letters we get are typed. Some Chambers have their own application forms, in which case they won't want to wade through CVs and letters;

4. Even if your A-level results are rubbish, don't just leave them out on your CV, otherwise we'll just assume they are anyway. If there's a reason for poor exam results then say so (provided it's a good reason, not just that your cat died);

5. Make it clear that your decision to be a barrister is an informed one. Don't just tell us that your mini-pupillages confirmed your decision to practise, say what you learned from them. Show that you have a realistic expectation of what pupillage will be like (you could do a lot worse than read pupilblog, which is a very accurate portrayal);

6. If that all sounds obvious, then you're probably a good candidate anyway. If it all sounds like too much hassle then do a more deserving applicant a favour and drop out now!

Hope that helps! Of course, if you are one of the talented but unlucky ones, you're sure to find a well-paid proper job with security, holiday pay etc. so will eventually have the last laugh!

Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Would your lordships give me a moment?

I'm off to the Court of Appeal in a couple of weeks to appeal against a sentence and today I received the transcript of the original hearing. I always cringe slightly to see my own words in print, but on this occasion it was even worse than usual. The Judge asked me a technical question to which I didn't know the answer and the transcript goes something like this:

HHJ Nails: Miss Beagle, can you assist me as to what my powers are?

Miss Beagle: Thinking on my feet, I cannot, but if your honour would give me a moment, I'll look it up.

HHJ Nails: Miss Beagle, I simply want to know under which section of the statute I should make the order. Does it make a difference whether I make it under section x or section y?

Miss Beagle: [Fighting the urge to say, "well you're the Judge, you tell me what the law is, you tosser!"] I'm afraid I hadn't previously addressed my mind to that point, may I have a...

HHJ Nails: Well let's see if Mr Opponent knows the answer.

Mr Opponent: Yes, I can assist, can I refer your honour to page x of Archbold... [reads aloud in very smug voice, sadly undetectable in the transcript]

HHJ Nails: Thank you very much. Do you want to say anything else Miss Beagle? No? Right then...

Of course, the order being discussed is the very order that's now the subject of an appeal. As readers can imagine, I'm really looking forward to my audience with their lordships!

Friday, 16 February 2007

The joy of appeals

Another stunning (albeit insignificant) victory today, this time in an appeal against sentence. When people are convicted and/or sentenced by a Magistrates Court, there is an automatic right of appeal to the Crown Court. This results in many appeals that are doomed to fail, since no grounds of appeal are needed. (The same is not true when people are convicted/sentenced in the Crown Court, as they need to seek leave to appeal to the Court of Appeal. In order to do this, there must be grounds for the appeal.) Appeals from the Magistrates to the Crown Court take the form of a rehearing and are very badly paid so most of us try to avoid them like the plague. Happily, my case today was one of the few appeals from the Mags to actually have some merit, the appeal was allowed and the sentence was reduced by about 25%. Even better, I was finished by 11.30, leaving plenty of time to catch up on papers (or update my blog, check my email and drink tea) before leaving for the weekend. If you're going to have a low-earning day, it's some comfort if you finish early. Better still was the fact that a barrister who has really irritated me in the past was at the same court about to start an appeal against conviction against a man who had chosen to represent himself - the dread of all barristers! When people represent themselves in court, you can guarantee the process will take twice as long and be twice as tortuous. This is mainly because litigants in person (as we call them) tend to go on and on about irrelevant points and judges are very reluctant to interrupt them for fear of creating an impression that people do not get the opportunity to "have their say". It's very difficult being against them because, contrary to what many people may think, opponents do generally talk to one another before going into court to see if they can come to any agreement about any of the issues and to alert one another to some of the points they are going to raise. Trying to persuade a litigant in person that you need to talk to them really gets their backs up. I once prosecuted a woman who defended herself and every time I tried to talk to her she burst in to tears and begged me to leave her alone. That was a long day. Rather my irritating colleague than me!

Thursday, 15 February 2007

A bit special

I had a trip to a nearby Magistrates Court today to represent a woman charged with drink-driving. "Wow, how thrilling!" I hear you thinking, and I accept it wasn't the most exciting case I'd ever had. She pleaded guilty but advanced a special reasons argument. When somebody is convicted of drink-driving, disqualification for at least a year is obligatory unless there are special reasons, in which case the magistrates can impose a very short ban or 10 penalty points instead. Special reasons are typically found in cases where people have driven as a result of an emergency and/or driven a very short distance in circumstances where nobody was put at risk. In this case the defendant was seen by police reversing out of her own driveway and maintained she never intended to drive any further than than. Happily, she was believed and the magistrates found that there were special reasons not to disqualify for the standard period. Instead, she was banned for 7 days. "Yes, yes, but what's the point of this story? And what is the legal beagle doing fighting traffic cases in the Mags in the first place?" the reader may ask. Well, to answer the second question, in these hard times I'm not too proud to do a bit of Mags work (especially if, like this, it was privately paying!) and in answer to the first, my client was very grateful for all I'd done for her. This might not seem like much but other lawyers will know that most of the time clients show, and doubtless feel, no gratitude for (or even recognition of) all the hard work that has been done on their behalf. So when a client recognises that they've had a good result and says "thank you" for your efforts, it gives you a lovely warm feeling inside.

Wednesday, 7 February 2007

Is my practice collapsing?

That's the question all barristers ask themselves from time to time! When we are busy, we do nothing but moan about the hours we work. I frequently annoy Mr Beagle by detailing how many hours I worked the previous evening - and after a full day in court, mind! - or canceling plans we'd made because I've been landed with a tonne of work for the next day. When we are not busy and have days out of court, we fret that there is no work around and that we must have done something to annoy our clerks or solicitors. Suspicious that others may have pilfered our work, we obsess about our colleagues' workloads. Only assurances that loads of other people are out of court too and/or Messrs Bloggs & Co have got us ear-marked for a big case can placate us. After a couple of weeks of panicking about being over-worked, I'm now panicking because this week has been rather slow! Out of court on Monday, just a couple of mentions yesterday and today, plus I'm out of court tomorrow. How I yearn for the middle ground! I've even managed to get up to date with Advices and other paperwork, so I really have nothing useful to do tomorrow. Except worry. We barristers are anxious creatures beneath our confident exteriors.

Sunday, 4 February 2007

Panic over rape conviction rates

I know this story is a few days old, but I've been too busy until now to comment on last week's hand-wringing over conviction rates for rape. The issue is, for obvious reasons, an emotive one which inevitably means that people approach it with less detachment and rationalism than, say, burglary. The statistic being bounced around was five percent, or one in twenty. This, we are told, is the percentage of rape cases which result in a conviction. Numerous solutions are being discussed, the most likely one being a change to the law on consent. Women (and yes, I know male rape exists, but recent reports have concentrated on female victims) who are so drunk they'll agree to anything would not be giving valid consent to sex. At first blush, many people would see this proposal as a sensible way of dealing with a horrifying problem. But there are a number of other factors to be taken into account.

Firstly, that statistic refers to allegations of rape, not cases which end up in court. There are a number of reasons why an allegation might not make it to court. These include unwillingness to report the matter to the police in the first place, a failure to identify or apprehend the alleged rapist, a total lack of evidence of any crime or indeed strong evidence that it cannot possibly have happened. If all of these hurdles are overcome and there is a trial, there are still myriad reasons why the defendant might not be convicted. In all criminal trials, the prosecution have to satisfy the jury so that they are sure (we used to say "beyond reasonable doubt") of the defendant's guilt. If they are not sure, then they must find him not guilty. The standard of proof in rape cases is no different. As unpalatable as this is to many people, just as there are people who make false complaints of burglary, robbery or violence, there are women who make false accusations of rape. There are many reasons why people do this - shame and regret after a one-night-stand, dislike of a stepfather or fury at an ex-partner to name but a few. Allegations are easy to make and enormously difficult to resile from once made. False allegations not only place innocent men in grave danger, they may well also decrease the chance of genuine victims having the confidence to report rape or being believed if they do report one.

As I touched on earlier, huge problems arise in cases where alcohol in involved. Historically, the law has been that drunken consent is nonetheless consent. Clearly, if somebody is so drunk they are barely conscious or unaware of their surroundings, they are not capable of consenting to sexual intercourse. Matters are set to become more complicated in cases where women only consent because they are drunk. There is much talk of how men who "take advantage" of women in this position should be liable to be convicted of rape. But so many people, male and female, get drunk and behave in a way that they wouldn't if sober. Even if we haven't done so ourselves (the legal beagle makes no admissions either way) we all know somebody who has got hammered and told their boss what they really think of them/sung on the karaoke machine/slept with somebody who they wouldn't have looked twice at before but who seems irresistable after 15 G&Ts. Men who sleep with women who would be out of their league were it not for the fact that they were drunk are certainly unchivalrous. But are they really rapists? And apart from cases of drink-spiking, who has made the decision to get drunk in the first place?

Nobody could sensibly argue that women are to blame for being attacked, whether they are drunk or sober, dressed in a mini-skirt or a pair of tracksuit bottoms. But we need to take some responsibility for the decisions we make after drinking our inhibitions away. Doubtless, there are rapes which go unreported and defendants who are wrongly acquitted, and this is tragic. But the worst response is to think with our hearts rather than our heads and let emotion take over from rational analysis of the evidence.

Monday, 29 January 2007

No room at the inn

For "inn" read "prison" where, as we all know, there is currently very little room indeed! Over the past few days, John Reid's letter to judges "reminding" them only to imprison dangerous offenders where possible has been the subject of much discussion. It has also provided us with another useful line to trot out in mitigation - just as the ones about defendants' girlfriends being pregnant and them having made real efforts to wean themselves off the smack were wearing a bit thin! Despite the odd story about paedophiles walking free, none of the judges I've been in front of in the last few days seem to be doing things any differently. And quite right, too! Leaving aside the questions of why we in the UK have such a staggeringly high percentage of our population behind bars and how we can reduce crime, why should people receive markedly different punishments for the same kind of offence depending on whether the prisons are a bit cramped the week they happen to be in court? Judges have little enough discretion in sentencing these days without having to bear in mind the lack of available prison space.

On the subject of available prison space, due to over-crowding at a local men's prison the adjacent women's prison was closed down recently in order to provide extra accommodation for male prisoners. "But what of all the female prisoners?" I hear you ask. Well, last week I represented a young woman who had been awaiting sentence in custody. Due to the closure of the women's prison, which was around an hour away from the court, she (along any other women remanded or sentenced by that court) was in a prison almost three hours away. Unsurprisingly, this prison is also very crowded, in part due to the extra people it is now having to accommodate. So altogether she spent the best part of six hours in a prison van, just for a 15 minute hearing. Apart from the issue of how she will cope with serving her sentence too far away for her family to visit her, just imagine what it costs to ferry prisoners around over such distances. Still, at least the male prison isn't critically over-crowded anymore, so I suppose shifting the problem elsewhere will mean some department will be able to chalk the whole sorry affair up as a success.

Friday, 26 January 2007


Hello and welcome to my brand new blog. As well as legal issues which make the media, I'll also be having my two-pence-worth on life in general, thus giving readers a fascinating insight into the day-to-day existence of the Legal Beagle. But first, for those not fortunate to be involved in legal circles, a little general information about one of our noblest professions - yes, that's right - that of the barrister...

We are self-employed advocates who are instructed by solicitors to represent clients. Thankfully, most of us aren't directly available to the general public, though that may well change in the future. Most of us at the Criminal Bar undertake work for both the CPS (Crown Prosecution Service, of which more later...) and defence solicitors. Though we are self-employed we group together in Chambers where we are managed by our clerks. Our clerks control our diaries, bill our fees and generally boss us about. Technically, they are our employees, but a barrister crosses a clerk at his or her peril.

To qualify as a barrister, you need to complete either a law degree or another degree followed by a conversion course, then the Bar Vocational Course (BVC). You then need to find a pupillage, which is basically a year-long apprenticeship in a Chambers. Competition for pupillages is fairly fierce. Once you finish pupillage, you have to secure a tenancy, which is a place in a Chambers from which to work.

When people find out that you are or are trying to become a barrister, they invariably all ask the same questions. So here they are, along with brief answers:

Q - Were you a solicitor before becoming a barrister?
A - No. (People sometimes switch from one to the other, but they are different jobs.)

Q - How can you defend people when you know they're guilty?
A - You can't. (People never believe us when we say this, but it's true. Also, they never ask how you can prosecute somebody you suspect is innocent, but there we go.)

Q - Do you wear a wig?
A - Yes.

Q - Do you have to be really clever to be a barrister?
A - No. Though many of us are.

Q - Don't barristers earn loads of money?
A - It depends. Junior criminal barristers certainly do not. Chancery and commercial practitioners often do.

There endeth the crash course in the Bar. I promise future posts will be more interesting. So please come back soon.