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.