Prologue on the Stage [with apologies to Goethe’s Faust]
At the belated age of 35, in early 1992, I embarked upon a Bar pupillage (which, for anyone reading outside England and Wales, means being a trainee-barrister for a year broken up into 2 6-month parts). The system was archaic. Having acquired a law degree and completed the 1-year Bar Finals course, and having passed all exams, you were expected, as a “pupil”, to trail around after a barrister (“pupil-master”) from whom you were expected to learn not so much the law as the practical procedure and habitude of the Bar and the courts.
The pupilmaster was the same age as me (a source of many a joke from him) and was a Mauritian of Indian descent, by name Raj N., whose father had been Minister of Justice, I believe, back home. At short notice, the pupillage had been set up by a friend of mine who shall be nameless (now that I am apparently “notorious” as a “far right” “extremist”– if you believe the “Lugenpresse” aka msm liars). I had to take what I could get. Having said that, Raj N. was basically a very decent little chap and we became quite friendly. His practice was an odd mixture: partly civil law with quite a few High Court judicial reviews; the rest, Crown Court criminal trials ranging from armed robbery to blackmail and almost everything else.
The first six months were unpaid (in those days, but not so now, when most if not all pupils are subsidized); not even unavoidable expenses such as travel were covered. The only expense that could be relied upon, if the pupilmaster were decent, would be a supply of drinks at the Cittie of York pub in Holborn or at Daly’s wine bar in Fleet Street (in Rumpole of the Bailey, “Pomeroy’s”), at the time called something else, a change which the Bar did not accept (and the Bar won that one, because I noticed recently that Daly’s is now called Daly’s again…).
I had come back from the USA to do the pupillage and had very little money. I got by, God knows how…I may have forgotten to pay my Underground fares at times, and one day, en route to Wood Green Crown Court in North London, I noticed, while ascending the escalator at Bound’s Green Underground Station, where –ticket-inspectors permitting–the pupilmaster usually picked me up, if our case was in North-East London or beyond, that the soles of my expensive handmade shoes were starting to part company with the uppers. I was not allowed to do my own cases (initially, “rubbish” cast off from barristers in my Chambers) and so make any money at all until I was in the second six-month period of pupillage. It was hard. Steps had to be taken. They were. However, that would be another story in itself.
One thing that made the first six months of pupillage bearable was the degree to which the pupilmaster got himself into amusing pickles, often in Court. Here is but one example.
The One Where Home and Away was the Alibi
So to that Rumpolian staple, Inner London Crown Court, situate halfway between London Bridge and Elephant and Castle. A rather grim old setting for many a case of serious and often “heavy” crime. In this case, serious rather than heavy. In legal terms, robbery; in lay terms, a mugging. The primary facts were that, on the ghastly North Peckham Estate in South London, a young man was hit in the face and money stolen. What distinguished this case from the many was that the victim had actually met and been introduced to the alleged robber some months prior to the robbery, a fact that (presumably) the defendant had forgotten, but (unfortunately for the defendant) the victim had not. There had been an identity parade, what the Americans call a line-up. The robber had been picked out.
Now, on the facts as stated above, you might think that the best course would be for the defendant to hold his hands up, plead to it and hope that his Counsel might mitigate the sentence. In any case, the Court is supposed to knock a third off for a guilty plea, though that is of course notional, because the guidelines for judges have latitude built in. In this case the defendant insisted on pleading Not Guilty. So there we were: an alleged robber whose victim knew him personally or at least had met him, and had identified him. What did the robber have to say?
The defendant was a rather large West Indian, a former amateur boxer of about 30, with a considerable criminal record for theft, robbery, drug misuse and so on. His alibi was that he not only was he not guilty and not at or near the scene of the crime but that he could not have done the crime, because every single day, without fail, he and his girlfriend (also West Indian) and her sister sat down at (I think it was, about) 5 pm to watch the Australian soap, Home and Away. Needless to say, such an alibi was thin, even with a supporting witness (the girlfriend). He thought, God knows why, that he had a good chance of getting off. In the meantime, he was being held in custody at “high security” Belmarsh Prison.
The first day of trial was absurd, with the perenially-late pupilmaster being told off not once but twice for tardiness. On the second occasion, after lunch, the plump-faced but not unattractive lady judge also waved her beringed fingers in front of her (the middle finger housing a massive rock that looked like it belonged in the V & A) and had taken the trouble to procure a printed copy of a page which she pointedly invited the pupilmaster to “peruse at your leisure, Mr. N.” It turned out to be the responsibilities of Counsel not to waste court time and the power of the judge to recommend that his (Legal Aid) fees be docked accordingly.
When the Defence opened on the second day, it turned out that the judge required that both sides should agree on when Home and Away was screened. Much quiet amusement from public gallery and jury box, but the judge and all Counsel had no idea of the timings. Judging from looks and smiles, the jury already knew the timings. Prosecution Counsel, a jolly fat little man, acquired copies of Radio Times and TV Times. These were perused. At that point, it was discovered that Home and Away was screened twice on every weekday afternoon, once at 5-something and, before that, at 2-something. These were, apparently, identical episodes, so it would have been possible for the defendant to see the first showing and still be free to mug the victim.
In the event, the sole Defence witness, the girlfriend (the defendant did not give evidence) scarcely came up to proof. Prosecution Counsel’s killer question asked whether, if she and defendant watched the first showing on any particular day, they would sit down again 3 hours later and watch it all over again. Her angry “YES!” carried little weight. The jury took little time to convict. When it was all over and the Prosecution Counsel was leaving, he jovially remarked to us, “well, I’m off home, home to watch Home and Away!”, to which the family and girlfriend of the defendant, having heard the remark, addressed a few choice epithets before scurrying off.
When we saw the defendant in the cells below (they are always below…), he was happy enough, despite the pretty stiff 5-year sentence that he had received about an hour before (the pupilmaster liked to give convicted defendants time to cool down…). Defendant’s formerly vice-like handshake was limp, explained by his “Ah’m OK, man. I can do a 5 on my ‘ead. Ah’ve just ‘ad a smoke, ani-way”…Where he got the stuff (cannabis) from, God knows. Better not enquired after.
So there we have it. Justice a la mode. Followed by a drink at a convenient hostelry.
[this little remembrance forms part of an occasional series on the absurdities of Bar practice as it was for me between 1992 and 2008]