Holding Court on the Home Front

Holding Court on the Home Front

Written By: Richard Gibbs, 1 High Pavement Chambers
Edition: May 2020

They say that a week is a long time in politics but seven weeks is pretty close to an eternity in the law these days and it is beginning to feel like the world we inhabited at the Criminal Bar up until a few weeks ago is in another epoch.

Out have gone the days when we arrived at court ahead of something listed at 10 but which didn’t get called on till 330 and in have come invitations to Zoom meetings. Out have gone wigs and gowns and in have come an increasingly eclectic range of decidedly non-court attire; whilst most of us are sticking to shirt, tie and jacket, the odd open necked shirt and even an avant garde roll neck sweater have made an appearance in recent days.

We hear a lot about when we are going to return to normal, (whatever that means in our decidedly abnormal world) but despite the announcement that some courts are to start jury trials imminently, the reality for most will be that we are unlikely to be physically attending a court building any time soon. Back to business will mean Skype for Business for most non-contentious hearings and – whisper it quietly – some of us are beginning to wonder whether that’s actually such a bad thing.

When all of this started, like the rest of the country, we found this all pretty difficult to comprehend. How on earth would we cope; surely this couldn’t last for long? But as the shock subsided and the summer of Skype dawned, slowly but surely we in our often fusty profession managed to see that there were many pluses to holding court from your study, kitchen table or living room. Sure, there were problems when the dog barked in the middle of a PTPH and the kids have an incredible ability to announce loudly and vocally their toilet requirements in the middle of sentencing remarks but actually the whole machine seemed to work remarkably well and very quickly too.

Whilst counsel are no longer sitting down with a coffee to try and thrash out a basis of plea or come to terms on a POCA, some of us actually think we may be communicating more rather than less. Its become the norm to ‘tune in’ to Skype hearings earlier than scheduled hearing to finalise what is going to happen and people are certainly making greater use of the notes on the digital system. A greater casualness has crept in which means frequently mobile numbers and email addresses are being exchanged between hitherto strangers in the profession to facilitate resolving a case or setting a new timetable. It is as if with the prohibition on face to face contact, we’ve made more of an effort to actually communicate and that can never be a bad thing.

The new online world of the court at home now means we each get a glimpse into the private world of our opponents; for the first time we all know what one another’s homes look like, what pictures people put on their walls and yes, what is on their bookcases. But above the prurient desire to peruse other people’s art choices, there is something about this beaming of the professional world into the personal that seems to have made everyone seem more human.  Even judges who are often – rightly or wrongly – seen as less friendly than some, seem to be warmer and more user-friendly than before. Perhaps once again, seeing into the home of someone makes it harder to be harsh with an advocate than when they’re bedecked in Eade and Ravenscroft’s finest in person.

What of chambers in this new digital world? Well paradoxically, whilst the ability to clutter up the clerks room and gossip over another coffee has been extinguished by Covid 19, we are talking by phone, Zoom and Skype more than ever and again, a good thing it is too. For us at 1 High Pavement, that has meant a weekly  pub quiz by Zoom which again has had the effect of beaming us all into one another’s homes and the evident concern to make sure everyone is well and able to work as best as they can is palpable. The realities of modern life mean that many of the traditional sides to the Bar – the drink after court, the boozy lunch after the end of a trial – have gone by the way in many cases but the ability to literally Zoom yourself into a virtual pub on a Friday night to meet with other members of chambers with your nearest and dearest as well as theirs, is something as precious as it was unexpected.

Of course there are worries about income and especially at the junior end. Of course there are worries for how this will play out economically and when we will be able to see some degree of predictability return to our work and our diaries but in truth, for many years unpredictability has been the order of the day and Coronavirus has perhaps made us more aware of this than ever.  However, whilst there are always imperfections and things which are harder than normal it is now possible to conduct hearings in different courts on the same day, having had breakfast with your family, bathed the baby at the end of the day and had a beer with your colleagues, all without leaving home. There are upsides here if we just take the time to look at them and whilst court is unlikely to be the same again, this new normal has shown us that we can do a lot from the home front.

Everybody’s experience will be slightly different and some will have struggled terribly with all of this but there is a palpable sense of us all being in this together and by adapting and innovating, its amazing how effective it can be holding court from the home front and how engaged you can stay with your colleagues. The test will be how much of the positive we can hang on to; the virtual PTPH’s and mentions must surely be the new normal and I’d like to think the chambers Friday pub quiz can stay as well, though I suspect in the real rather than virtual world, the price of a round may go up!


Richard Gibbs

Barrister, 1 High Pavement