Life at the Bar – A question of tactics
When I was still employed as a solicitor, West London Magistrates’ Court was in Southcombe Street W14; a redbrick building with an impressive entrance in white stone. On the floor, as you entered was a mosaic of the Metropolitan Police crest, a reminder that this had been called a police court when it first opened. The name may have been changed, but the court was still run by police officers. They organised the list of defendants and had an office where they collected the fines imposed by the magistrates. Solicitors were allowed into the cell area to take instructions from their clients and that also gave access to the small room at the back of a waiting area where the matron dispensed cups of tea for a small sum. It was here that, if you had made friends with the local CID you would be given a brief outline of the evidence against a client. There was no practice of serving statements in cases that were to be heard by the magistrates. Only if the case was being committed to the Crown Court would a lawyer get to see the evidence against the defendant.
One of the warrant officers, a man known as Jock, was a caricature of a Scotsman, quite tall, balding with a fringe of red hair and a ferocious temper. His role was to run the list for the court. When a defendant arrived at the courthouse, whether on bail or brought by the prison van, they were ticked off on the sheets kept by the warrant officer. A defendant’s lawyer would, after seeing his client, tell the officer what application he would be making to the Magistrate. The policeman would then decide the order in which cases would be called, usually depending on the kind of application. Adjournments where there were no applications usually went first, then applications for bail and pleas in mitigation were left to the end. The solicitors appearing in the case before the magistrate were always keen to get their cases on as soon as possible; there was always more work to be done in the office, or another court to attend.
Jock tended to favour local solicitors when deciding on what order to call cases into court, barristers and out of area solicitors were usually put to the back. However, if for some reason you offended him, your case would be put down the list. It was often difficult to know what you had done to upset him. Not being deferential enough was perhaps the most common offence, but there were others. I soon learnt that the best way of getting my cases on first was to make sure I upset him as early as possible. My cases would go to the bottom of the list, but by the time the hearing began, I could guarantee that other lawyers would also have committed some error and their cases too would be transferred to the bottom and as they did so, my clients would get nearer the top. Just a question of tactics.