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.
Work in Progress
I was asked to do this by Catherine Lumb. I think it’s an interesting excercise to make you think about your writing.
What is the title of the book/WIP?
The book is called Crucial Evidence. Apart from WIP it’s had about five titles including ‘Defending the Innocent.’ and ‘Missing Alibi’
Where did the idea come from?
I know that defending an innocent man is the hardest thing a barrister can do. I expanded on that theme so that my main character goes to unusal lengths to ensure her client gets a fair trial.
What Genre is your WIP.
It’s a crime novel, legal drama.
Which actors would you chose to play your characters in a movie rendition.
I am tempted to say Maxine Peake as she plays a very similar character in Silk, but prehaps she should play my police officer, Alexis Seymour, and Anne Marie Duff could play Cassie Hardman, my barrister, but perhaps she’s too attractive for Cassie.
What is your one sentence synopsis of your WIP
Female barrister Cassie Hardman, sure her client is innocent of murder, searches for a crucial witness, and with Police woman, Alexis Seymour, finds the witness and then identifies the real killer.
Is your WIP published or represented?
I have sent the book to a number of Literary Agents without any sucess, but this year the consulting editor of a major publishing house asked to read the whole book. She didn’t want to take it any further after reading the novel, but she made some suggestions about the book and I am now redrafting it with those in mind with the intention of resubmitting it again.
How long did it take to write it?
About three years so far. I keep on rewriting it when I see flaws or I’ve had comments about it from Literary Agents, which make sense to me.
What other books within your genre would you compare it with.
‘Presumed Innocent’ by Scott Turow, the outstanding example of a legal thriller, and John Grisham’s ‘A Time to Kill.’
Which authors inspired you to write this WIP
Charles Dickens. ‘Bleak House’ is a great legal drama with strong identifiable characters. You can find the same types in the legal profession today.
Tell us anything else that might pique our interest in this project?
If you have ever asked yourself how can a barrister represent a person they believe is guilty, you will find the answer.
Did I always want to write?
My first reaction to that question would be no, I didn’t harbour an ambition to write, but on reflection I did write stories when I was a teenager. Those really awful romances, girl meets boy, but they are torn apart by whatever came to mind, illness, parents moving etc. We’ve all been there. I used to make up stories with a friend as well. As we hung around the local park, we would invent new characters for whatever soap was popular, weave their stories into the narrative, and act out our parts.
Then I went to university and studied law, lots of reading and writing there, essays and law reports. That continued when I began work and had to take professional exams to qualify as a solicitor. Once I got past that stage, I wrote very detailed legal letters to clients and short speeches for the Magistrates Court. After a few years as a solicitor I wanted to be a barrister, because I longed to do bigger cases and to be able to appear in the Crown Courts and address juries. The transfer from one branch of the legal profession to the other wasn’t difficult, but for the first year or so, I didn’t have too much work to do and my afternoons were usually free. I found a number of ways to pass the time, exercise classes at The Pineapple Dance Centre in Covent Garden, visiting museums and galleries, going to matinees at the theatre and I began to write again. This time I tried to write legal thrillers, but they were anything but thrilling, so I gave up. As I became more senior and the cases I had were more complex, I was writing speeches to make to the jury. Each one a small story based on the facts that has been established during the trial. Of course advocates try to influence what the witnesses say in court, and part of the art is to put the most favourable interpretation on the evidence. So story telling again.
After I retired from the Bar, I wanted to write a family story because my two nieces were brought up in the USA and know very little about their English heritage – my brother is a non-communicator, whereas I know quite a lot about my family, some of it mythical, but then doesn’t every family have its legends. My attempt was just not interesting; I knew my nieces wouldn’t read it, so I realised I needed to get out of lawyer mode and learn to be more emotional – I find that difficult to say as I don’t think I lack feelings, it just being objective is so important for lawyers, but doesn’t make for interesting reading. Dry is the usual description of lawyers, it goes with the job.
That lead me to reading for an MA in Creative Writing at Exeter University. Now I don’t get bored with my writing – I write really good round robins at Christmas. I have written a novel, a courtroom drama/thriller and I hope to get it published, one way or another. Perhaps deep down I did always want to write.