Culture Casualty

 

Yesterday, I found myself reminiscing about ‘the old days at the Bar’ – as one does after 36 long years in private practice.

Unusually, eleven lawyers were beached together in the small advocates’ room at York Family Court Centre whilst Judge F, the single judge, battled with a massive list, complicated by all manner of legal conundrums. I permitted the wash of sound to lap against my consciousness. If I needed confirmation that I was in a family court the words were ‘children’, ‘mum’, dad’ and the odd ‘grandchild’ provided it.  Ahead of me was a flash of red lining from a young advocates new suit, a blue silk scarf wafted beyond on a peg, files were piled on tables and window ledges, and a suitcases staggered in a crazy parking lot by the lockers.  These were the true signs of the family court.

But there was no mention of ‘lunch’.

These days, as the plastic forks and boxes and vacuum packed sandwiches join the cardboard coffee and aluminium flasks on the advocates’ tables, there is no thought of communal ritual or routine. At one time, courts would have risen almost simultaneously, coughing advocates up and out to join each other at ‘the mess’ – the legal ritual daily lunch.

Here on the North Eastern Circuit at Leeds, an entire centre row of tables in the advocates’ area would be cleared at noon and set for lunch, with meals served simultaneously by the waitress staff. When a jury had recently returned a verdict – and the day’s work completed, a bottle of burgundy may also appear. In Sheffield and Hull, this event was honed to a fine art by the court junior. Arriving at the selected pub or hotel, advocates would be greeted by door and waitress staff, and led to linen-dressed tables, pre-set with wine and flowers. Joined by the judges, lunch would last as long as they deemed proper, with occasional messages phoned from the corner booth to inform court staff that the judge was ‘unavoidably delayed’.

Some readers will read this with incredulity. Others, censoriously, sensing inappropriate practice and privilege. But, at the time, it provided the perfect setting for the real work of the Bar – communication.

Retiring from active practice at the Bar, HP’s recent observations  about ‘lunch’ were remarkably insightful – not surprising for those that knew HP’s innate perspicacity. She may read this and deprecate the linking of her remarks with historic excesses, for that is not what she meant. Her point (and mine) was simply that busy, overworked, over-stressed advocates needed an opportunity to unpack, talk, listen and reflect. Rather than taking home the stresses of unresolved conflict to unwitting families  – how much more appropriate to sit together as professionals, take lunch and chat things through?

These days the elegance of practice – whether as a barrister or solicitor of the Supreme Court – has been removed, stolen or simply evaporated with the passage of time. Mostly, we subsist as executives working in the law, festooned and remunerated by regulation. Like the judges before whom we appear, we have little or no ‘thinking time’. Last minute preparation of digital information requires instant responses and sees us enter courts with sometimes superficial grasp of the case in hand, and no later chance to reflect or discuss what we should have learned.

The system – whether imposed by Ministry of Justice, HM Court Service, Legal Aid Agency or merely present day structure of the professions – simply impoverishes our work rather than enhances it. The greater the pressure to deliver in the shortest possible time without reflection, the poorer the judgement, and the service that we deliver.

I say, “bring back lunch”, and breath new, old meaning into legal practice.

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