Wednesday, 6 December 2006

Bundle? What bundle?

Interesting morning. I tagged along to the Royal Courts of Justice with someone new, quite a senior member of chambers, for an ex parte application for ancilliary relief under section 13 of the Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act 1984. I'm going to look up what all this means shortly. The ex parte bit I do know. It means that the other party isn't present and doesn't even know about the proceedings. This might sound a bit unfair but if the application is granted it enables to the applicant to take protective steps over the respondent's assets before the respondent can take pre-emptive measures. This makes a lot of sense when the context is registering a formal interest in the former matrimonial home before it gets flogged.

The case was listed before a QC sitting as a deputy High Court Judge. The instructing solicitors had sent along Bubble from Ab Fab, who met us outside the allocated court room. I have already come across this solicitors firm three times in the last three weeks and have heard nothing good about them. One member of chambers explained to me that she had sorted out one of her clients with an alternative representative they are so poor. This is extremely unusual as the barrister is employed by the solicitor not the client directly, and it had not exactly gone down well with the firm. They will no longer instruct her. It reflects really well on the barrister concerned, in my view.

Anyway, my barrister was discussing the case with Bubble beforehand and referred to the bundle. His copy of the bundle had only arrived the previous night and he had already told me it was rubbish on the way to court. Bubble, who is a trainee, looked a bit confused and asked 'what bundle?' 'The bundle for the judge,' the barrister replied, with more than a hint of anxiety in his voice. Bubble explained that she didn't think there was a bundle for the judge, as Doreen had told her it was an application. As if this somehow explained anything. The barrister started to get quite sharp at this point, seeing into the future as he could: it was going to be rather difficult to refer the judge to any papers or materials if there weren't two copies in the court room. The layout and formalities of the RCJ do not exactly encourage side by side discussion of the issues and the sharing of one set of papers. The judge would hit the roof and there would likely be a wasted costs order.

'I don't believe anyone would have said that,' he repeated twice from a standing position, leaning forward with both his hands on the table at which Bubble was sitting. Meanwhile, oblivious to the rather threatening posture and tone of the barrister, Bubble was looking through her file and managed to find a copy of the covering letter that had accompanied the bundle dispatched to the judge the previous day. All was well.

The hearing went very smoothly, with the judge giving clear indications of what issues the barrister did not need to concern himself over ('you don't need to worry about section 15, the main issue is really the hurdle in section 13 in this case' etc). This is quite a contrast to most cases I've seen in the lower courts and tribunals, where the judge might as well be carved in stone - usually to resemble a particularly grim gothic gargoyle sitting on a particularly sharp stone spike. The only hiccup came when it turned out that the expert report on the validity of the overseas Talaq divorce was not in the bundle and a spare copy had to be rapidly produced, without much assistance from Bubble.

Rubbish solicitors appear to be an occupational hazard. I am accustomed to preparing and presenting my own cases, which has the advantage that I was able to prepare them as I wanted and knew the case and the client thoroughly before the hearing. The disadvantages are over-attachment to the client, which becomes a problem if you lose and leads to a high attrition rate for staff, and not having anywhere to hide in court if you have screwed up. As a last resort a barrister can always blame the solicitor, although if the firm finds out instructions will dry up very rapidly.

Being entirely dependent on a solicitor to prepare the case and serve the right papers looks pretty dicey to me. I've shadowed two cases where the bundle was delivered to the barrister's home address the night before, both in the RCJ, one of which was before the formidable and highly intelligent Mr Justice Collins. I'd be having kittens.

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