There are many things that most people do not understand about barristers: how they can defend people they believe to be guilty; what ‘chambers’ is and why they pay their clerks so much, to name but three. However, there is one thing that barristers themselves never quite get about other barristers, and that is how a defender becomes a relentless prosecutor; and how the radical firebrand turns into the judicial scourge of his erstwhile colleagues.
I was reminded of this recently. ‘Could you do a little murder for me?’ asked Andrew, our senior clerk. He is known to perform a curious bodily shape-shifting routine when he is embarrassed or emotionally roused. I could not see why ‘doing a little murder’ would cause this effect unless he had bagged a brief in Newcastle and was apprehensive about my reaction. ‘Long way off?’ I asked. ‘Oh no, sir, very central London.’ ‘Insanity?’ I queried. ‘No,’ he replied, ‘just a bit of gangland tit-for-tat.’ I continued to stare at him, awaiting enlightenment. ‘Miss Briar-Pitt will be prosecuting, sir,’ he said in a somewhat strangulated tone. For a second I did not react. Her name is so often coupled with mine in defence cases… then what he had said penetrated my brain. ‘Miss Briar-Pitt prosecuting?’ ‘It’s a sort of experiment, sir. All this diversity and giving people a chance.’
Since the only relevant features of Hetty B-P that at a stretch could be described as diverse were, one, that she very rarely prosecuted and, two, that she lived entirely for her horses, I did not know precisely what diversity template the prosecuting authority was applying. However, once I had recovered from the mild shock, I looked forward to a pleasant little trial, hopefully resulting in a triumphant acquittal for my client.
The first hint that these thoughts might be premature came when a somewhat agitated Felix Gray from next-door chambers rang me. He was my junior and had been instrumental in securing me the brief. Apparently he had telephoned Hetty with some seemingly innocuous requests for disclosure and she had bitten his head off. This often happens when barristers who do not know each other speak for the first time, but they are usually close friends by the end of the case. What is often needed is the intervention of a third party, such as myself, who is known to both.
I wandered into her room as I had done so many times before. ‘Hetty!’ I said, ‘young Felix next door has got off on the wrong foot I fear. May I pour oil on troubled water and say we would just like disclosure on anything known about this awful gang.’ She fixed with me with an expression that a large cat gives shortly before pouncing on its prey and gave my entirely reasonable request short shrift. ‘First,’ she said ‘your wholly inadequate Defence Statement gives you no right to any further disclosure. Second, your junior is presumptuous and discourteous. Third, William, disks containing interviews of vulnerable witnesses should not be left out on your desk.’
And that is what it was like for the next 15 days. When we finally arrived at court for the trial I was emotionally exhausted. The sight or sound of either Miss Briar-Pitt or Mr Gray made me feel physically sick. In the Bar Mess I poured out my sorrows to the delightful, civilised and amusing Treasury Silk, George White. I had forgotten that his family was used to relatives being on opposing sides. ‘Ghastly,’ he said. ‘At Tewkesbury I had two close relatives fighting each other in the Wars of the Roses.’ I made sympathetic noises. ‘It was even worse in the Civil War,’ he continued. ‘There we had two brothers in my family involved in a fearsome sword fight with both suffering heavy damage before they realised they were actually on the same side. Liveries were much less clear then. One of the brothers had had his hair cut and the other thought he was a Roundhead.’ It put it all in perspective.
Our jury members could not agree. They, like the judge, were probably flummoxed by the endless quarrelling between counsel. I returned to chambers to give Andrew the news. His limbs seemed curiously restored. ‘Never mind, sir,’ he said, ‘just got you a nice little blagging in Snaresbrook for next week.’ I perked up. ‘Leading?’ I asked. ‘Miss Briar-Pitt, sir,’ he replied. Order had been restored.
William Byfield Gutteridge Chambers. William Byfield is the pseudonym of a senior member of the Bar. Gutteridge Chambers, and the events that happen there, are entirely fictitious.