Thursday, 30 November 2006

Settled out of court

It has surprised me how much gets settled between the parties outside court, at least in family proceedings. The barristers play a crucial role in this, not least because they are sufficiently distant from the build up to the case and the acrimony that inevitably precedes any court case to be able to talk to the other side quite openly. Every Order I've witnessed been made by a judge so far (admittedly, that's not very many) has been nothing to do with the judge, it has been negotiated by the barristers outside court and presented to the court as a fait accompli.

The case management hearing I saw this afternoon provided an interesting example of the role of the barrister. The guy I was following acted for the local authority and was quite new to the case. Everyone seemed to be using him as a confidante. For example, the mother's solicitor was complaining about the social worker's manner and the disclosure of some confidential information. As go-between he raised this with the social worker, whose manager was present, in a very sensitive way, her account turned out to be very different and he smoothed things over very neatly. It had nothing to do with the actual hearing or the outcome of the case, but it will hopefully in a small way contribute to a positive outcome for the case and for the children concerned.

Basically, case management and Order renewal hearings are far more about the parties and barristers getting their heads together outside court in the conference rooms and open areas rather than what happens inside the court rooms. I'm sure the threat of a judge throwing the rattle out of the pram if someone does something stupid must focus the mind, but it occurs to me that it would be a lot cheaper if everyone just went to Starbucks rather than an enormous heated court building in central London.

No sign of The Master again today. I haven't seen him all week. Unusually he didn't pick up the phone at home, so I just saw the clerks first thing and sorted out someone new to tag along with today. The more members of chambers I meet the better, really. I've just left a few messages to let him know what I'm up to.

Lastly, one of the QCs in chambers has asked me to update her copy of Hershman McFarlane, the family law looseleaf practitioner text. There's a two inch thick bunch of papers to insert at various points in the three folders that make up this tome. Apparently I'm getting paid for it, so I should keep track of how long it takes me. I'm quite looking forward to this mindless task, I find to my surprise, so that sorts me out for tomorrow morning. And the money will come in handy, even if it just pays for a sandwich for lunch.

Tuesday, 28 November 2006

Last year's pupils

I've been tucked away in the library at chambers all day today. No sign of The Master, although he did phone me in some instructions at about 10am and asked me to call him before 5pm to check how I was doing. I've been sitting almost by myself reading case files all day and trying to get to grips with the issue of 'ordinary residence' for the purposes of local authority duties to assess and provide for care needs under the National Assistance Act 1948. I'm supposed to be drafting some representations to the Secretary of State for Health for a s.32 reference on which local authority gets to look after the applicant. It might not sound it, but it's actually quite interesting and it's something that I've come across before in asylum work but know very little about.

I'd like to think that I'd normally be able to knock off a task like this in a couple of hours, but it really has taken all day and I'm still not done. I just can't focus as it isn't real work, it isn't my case and yet I'm also pretty much unsupervised and, ultimately, nothing depends on it. To give myself some credit, I am also pretty knackered after a busy weekend.

I said almost by myself as one of the pupils from last year has a desk in the library. The other pupil from last year, a guy I've met once in the post room, has been taken on as a tenant but she is doing a third six (an additional bolted-on period of pupillage) here. I don't think she applied for tenancy this time around. We've been sitting trying look busy and not disturb each other's non-work. I've no idea if she spotted that I was bored so I spent quite some time sorting photos from my long weekend. We did just manage to have a chat about her experiences here, which seem to have been very positive.

She has come straight through directly from university, unlike the other pupil who started at the same time as her, myself and, apparently, the other pupil who has started with me (more about her when we actually speak properly, hopefully this week). She spent eight months with one pupilmaster and four with another. She has found the set friendly and pleasant and she has learned a lot in her time here.

As a third six pupil, she is a qualified barrister (I think) but is not a permanent member of chambers, called a 'tenant'. However, she also does not need to pay chambers 'rent', the fairly hefty fee for being attached to a set of chambers and benefiting from the central resources and clerking service. Today, she was quite excited about doing two linked Interim Care Order (ICO) renewals at the Registry on High Holborn, as they pay £35 a pop but only take a few minutes. She seems to be pretty dependent on the clerks to feed her work, and that is all she got for today. She says the guy who got taken on as a tenant has a busy diary and is developing his own practice, and that he is very good at the whole networking thing.

She will apply for tenancy here but she'll also be applying elsewhere as insurance. She isn't sure that there is enough low level work coming in at the moment to sustain two quite junior members of chambers.

I think there are quite a few lessons in all this.

Saturday, 25 November 2006

The Master

I actually met my pupilmaster properly yesterday and had a good chat. I´d only met him once before, at Medway County Court earlier in the week, and he was pretty busy that day with the hearing, the renewal of some interim care orders in a sex and drugs child neglect care case.

I´m not doing too well so far with the whole terminology and deference thing, so I´ve decided to try and go the whole hog and get into character (possibly Uriah Heep) by thinking of him as The Master.

Yesterday we met at Snaresbrook Criminal Court. I was running slightly late as I´d had to go into chambers first to drop off some stuff in order to make a swift getaway later on for a long weekend away, my train had been delayed on the way in and then my Oyster card wasn´t working and I had to get a new one sorted out at Chancery Lane. Great timing and I wonder how often the things break down like that.

He got me a coffee to start with and talked me through the case, a public interest immunity hearing where a social services department had been asked to disclose various documents in a criminal case that might be relevant to the outcome of the case, for example by providing evidence of past dishonesty and so on. These situations often involve pretty unpleasant sexual offences, and this case certainly fitted that mould. Essentially, the relevant social services department instruct a barrister, who then flags up any documents that he or she thinks might conceivably be relevant to the case, usually to the defence case. The barrister then talks the trial judge through the documents and anything the judge considers relevant will be disclosed through a witness summons. The barrister who flagged the documents up will then argue against disclosure. All of this takes place ´in camera´, in a closed hearing alone with the judge. The process is necessary as the documents are all confidential documents with detailed personal information that social services aren´t permitted to disclose without a summons.

The criminal barristers for the CPS and the defence in this instance knew virtually nothing about the case and were standing in for the actual trial barristers. The trial itself is due in April 2007. The Master had written in to the senior clerk or whatever they are called at Snaresbrook to ask for a two hour hearing. The letter had been ignored or binned and the judge only had half an hour before having to resume a part heard trial. This meant that there wasn´t time for a proper hearing. This in turn means that The Master and the social worker will have to return to court on another day, as will barristers for the prosecution and defence and the same trial judge, all at quite some expense.

The Master then spent quite some time in the robing room talking me through how to fix the detachable collars that are necessary for any gown ´n´ wig work, with some useful pointers like how to transport and store the wig and flappy white tie things, carrying spare studs and so on. We drove into chambers then went for lunch at the Inn (more on Inns of Court if I ever get around to doing a terminology section), and he revealed that in his spare time he writes soft rock and pop music.

Now, I firmly believe that everyone should have what Denis Healey called a ´hinterland´, an area of interest outside one´s main occupation. He was talking about politicians but it surely has universal application. A significant part of The Master´s seems to be writing soft rock. Mainly ballads by the sounds of things. He also disclosed that he is 52 and he dances around the house with his guitar as part of the creative process.

He´s quite a character.

Tuesday, 21 November 2006

Chucked out of court

Hum, just got back to chambers after getting chucked out of court. Well, not allowed in, anyway. I'd just been sitting in on a case management conference in a care proceedings case and the barrister I was following -- not my supervisor, he's working from home again today -- asked the various parties if it was acceptable for me to come into the hearing. One of them objected (fairly vociferously) and his barrister suggested that it wasn't worth the hassle of sorting it out before the hearing just as we were about to go in as it would only delay the case getting started. I decided to go before causing further embarrassment. My barrister wasn't too pleased and had started to object, but I didn't want to get in her way or cause a problem.

I'm reasonably sure that it isn't supposed to work like that. Obviously, I can understand why the parties would object, particularly the parents in a care case where the children have already been taken into care because of alleged serious prejudice to their best interests, often physical abuse or neglect. It will certainly be difficult to learn how everything works if everyone has a veto on whether a pupil can sit in on proceedings. I'd already been there for two hours at this point, and it would have been useful to see the culmination of the discussions I'd witnessed.

I did try calling the Bar Council but they were busy and asked me to call back later.

Monday, 20 November 2006


Several members of chambers seem to have a bit of a thing about Solitaire, more commonly known as the actual solo card game Patience. There's one of them in particular who seems to be addicted, who I'll call Crispin, but I've noticed several of the others playing away while on the telephone or in quiet moments. Maybe it's more widespread than I realised, but I've never noticed this elsewhere.

Crispin plays shamelessly on the shared terminals in the corridor next to the photocopier. Not everyone in chambers has a computer so these exist for shared use.

I guess it is one of the benefits of being self employed, as all these barristers are. There's no need to justify yourself to a superior as you have no superior. There's no need to look busy if you aren't busy, you can relax in the lull before the next work storm. Although I guess the clerks might frown on this, as it means the barristers aren't busy earning the money from which the clerks get their hefty percentage cut.

That is the favourable view, at least. The less charitable view is that the exceedingly plummy Crispin doesn't have enough work and is hanging around chambers waiting for some to come his way, unlike the busier majority of barristers, who understandably disappear home if they ever get the chance.

Friday, 17 November 2006

Dressing down

I think I have just been given a mild dressing down. For being underdressed, appropriately enough. My pupilmaster tells me (on the phone, we still haven't actually met) that the normal attire is as for court, and that while I might see other members of chambers dressed in jeans and suchlike, it would not be appropriate for me to be similarly dressed. In addition, I may call members of chambers (i.e. the barristers) by their first names, but when I am talking about them in the third person to the clerks I should refer to them as 'Mr x' and so on.

It has only just occurred to me that this may require me to discover the marital status of all the female members of chambers. I get the feeling that this is not really a 'Ms'-friendly environment. I'm going to need quickly to learn everyone's surnames as well as their first names, which is already proving an uphill challenge.

He also mentioned that the recommended hours are 9am to 6pm.

I have been cycling in and changing into a suit I've been leaving on a hat stand. Today I didn't put a tie on as normal, I have been referring to the barristers by the first names in front of the clerks and I've been leaving between 5pm and 6pm so far. Clearly someone has had a word with my supervisor. Otherwise the clerks might get ideas above their station, I suppose, and where would that end? The whole social order could come crashing down.

Good grief. It really does all feel very Dickensian.

Thursday, 16 November 2006

I went to Oxford, don't you know!

Things are looking up a bit. I got a call at home from my pupilmaster (not a term I can bring myself to use much – supervisor will suffice) to introduce himself and make sure I have some activities with which to amuse myself. I’ll be tagging along to a care hearing on Monday with him and there are apparently eight lever arch files for me to start reading beforehand. He also arranged for me to observe a Court of Appeal hearing with the head of chambers, which turned out to be very interesting. The parties were all in agreement that the appeal should be allowed. Presented with this unanimity the Lords Justice didn’t really bother identifying the actual error of law, nor did they bother with a judgment as such. The hearing was notably conversational, constructive and friendly, not something to which I’ve been much accustomed in my previous legal work. The best interests of the child concerned and achieving a swift resolution were very clearly at the forefront of everyone’s mind. In particular, the apparently up and coming Lord Justice Hughes made several intelligent and helpful interventions.

As everyone was in agreement as to what should happen, some might think that the four barristers, four sets of solicitors and two Lords Justice (none of the actual human beings affected by the case were present, for various reasons) might have found something more productive to do with their morning. Especially since, as is completely standard, there were several cases on the court's list, meaning that we didn't get started until about 11.30am but were waiting around from 10am.

A slightly odd and offputting aspect of my initial conversations with both my supervisor and, the next day, the head of chambers was a gratuitous reference to the university at which I studied, Oxford. My supervisor brought it up on the phone the first time we talked and the head of chambers mentioned it when we were walking to court. My educational background had clearly been mentioned to them at some point. They both studied there as well, it seems. On top of that, one of the players in the case was referred to in the pre hearing chatter as being a Cambridge man, as if this was significant.

The whole Oxbridge thing would certainly appear to be important to them, otherwise it wouldn’t have been mentioned. While I fully realise it may be naive of me to say this, I was surprised. The chambers I’m at have a fairly progressive reputation. On the other hand, being proud of the university at which one studied is natural, and had it been a different institution and they had also studied there, perhaps they would also have mentioned it. It isn’t quite as simple as this, I suspect.

Sunday, 12 November 2006

One week in

I am one week into my 'pupillage'. This arcane term is that used by barristers to describe the vocational training stage of becoming a full barrister. It's basically a fancy apprencticeship.

The journeymen and masters are a tad plumbier than the average workshop and the manual labour element mainly seems to involve carrying large piles of papers, legal text books and files, but otherwise the analogy seems to hold quite well. In common with the vast majority of other pupils, I get paid bugger all, I make a lot of tea and I follow proper barristers around at a respectable distance, often carrying their wigs and gowns.

For those unacquainted with this quaint terminology and the odd legal subculture to which I'm referring, I'll post something and a few links in a few days.

This blog has several explicit purposes at its inception:

(a) Catharsis. After my first week, I suspect this is quite important.
(b) Education for others. So that any other potential barristers out there get an idea of what they might be letting themselves in for.
(c) Fun and (accurate or inaccurate) self reflection. These kind of go together for me, although I'd generally have more actual fun if they didn't.

I suspect that mission creep may lead to some or none of these purposes being fulfilled, or other purposes wending their way in somehow. We shall see. My intention is to keep the blog anonymous, for various reasons. I certainly do not plan to say anything excessively indiscreet or rude about anyone, but on balance I think anonymity is in my interests and those who might end up featuring in the blog. How easy that is to maintain in practice while also seeking to make it interesting remains to be seen, as I haven't tried anything like this before.

Now, my first week...

As I suspected, when I turned up at 9am on Monday and introduced myself to the clerks (not me being patronising, that's what they are called - more on this in a future post), no-one was expecting me. The clerks seemed to think that I was a mini-pupil. Disappointingly, a mini-pupil is usually a university student who comes into chambers (the office where barristers collect together to 'work' - more on the number of times I've seen people playing Patience in another post) for a week or so to work shadow. It does not involve some sort of Austin Powers style Mini-Me cloning experiment gone wrong. Although I would not be remotely surprised to find a fusty old room somewhere in chambers where cloning experiments are taking place.

I can see that some sort of terminology exposition would be useful and would save on the clumsy use of parentheses. I'll get started on something in the highly likely event that I have some quiet time in the next few days.

Anyway, I ended up sitting around in the waiting area for an hour. In anticipation I'd brought a newspaper with me. The Guardian, of course, the newspaper of choice for all muesli-munching, sandal-flapping, tree-hugging, pinko-leftie human rights barristers. Hum, that's induced a quick personal crisis: perhaps the proper muesli-munchers read The Indie these days? Perhaps my sandals aren't as flappy as I thought?

Eventually the head of the pupillage committee turned up, apologised for not getting in touch over the weekend to let me know what was going on and started to show me around. The most important introduction was definitely to the coffee machine, who has proved sympathetic so far and with whom I have started to establish a meaningful relationship. I also met a rapid succession of barristers, whose names I forgot probably almost as quickly as they will have forgotten mine.

The barristers I encountered on my first few days divided into the friendly-smiley ones and the look-straight-through-me ones. It was a pretty even divide to start with. However, there was some sort of chambers meeting towards the middle of the week, and several of them actually said 'hello' the next day and introduced themselves, presumably meaning that someone had slightly belatedly mentioned that there was a new pupil starting who would be hanging around chambers looking like a lost soul. Although they may not have put it quite like that at the meeting.

The fundamental problem with the week was that I wasn't allocated a pupilmaster. This faintly alarming sounding role is central to the whole appenticeship experience. It is the person from whom the pupil learns, who allocated him or her work and generally acts as his or her supervisor. Without one, I really was a bit of a lost soul, floating aimlessly around chambers caught between my desire to do something useful and appear keen and my need to crack on with some privately paid moonlighting work I'd acquired.

I tagged along to court with a few of the above mentioned friendly-smiley barristers who took pity on me and invited me to come along and observe them. It was nice of them, but I didn't see anything with which I wasn't already familiar, already having acquired a bit of legal experience in the past - one of the reasons that I assume I was awarded the pupillage in the first place. I was also asked to do a few little bits of research, all of which were interesting little problems.

Eventually, on Friday, I was given a pupilmaster, although I haven't actually met him yet. This at least enabled me to contact the Bar Council to register my pupillage, which I am hoping they will backdate to the start of the week. If they don't, I might as well have gone and done something useful for the week, like go on holiday.

After a week of hanging around with no purpose, no real work to do and no-one taking any interest in me, my ego is pretty much on life support and any sense of anticipation, excitement or enthusiasm was well and truly gone. This was what I had expected, in fact, so I would be lying if I claimed that I had been feeling properly excited or enthusastic, but the realisation of these fears was certainly disappointing. Now that I actually have a pupilmaster at whose feet I can learn, though, I'm hopeful that the experience will be more positive.