Mukul Chawla QC: Reflections from my years at the independent Bar

Three weeks ago, I concluded my final speech in a murder at the Central Criminal Court and was allowed to tell the jury at the end of it that, because of a longstanding previous engagement, I would not be able to return to the case.

The longstanding previous engagement was my leaving the independent Bar to join a firm of International lawyers in the City of London as a partner in its White Collar Crime team.  I have now been working in that role for three weeks and it has given me an opportunity to reflect on what I have left behind. At a time when my good friend Max Hill QC is about to take up the reins as Director of Public Prosecutions, I thought it was an appropriate moment to put down some of my thoughts on what the past thirty five years have meant to me and my fears for the future of the Criminal Justice system.

I was called to the Bar by Grays Inn in July 1983, a moderately fresh faced 22 year old who had played too much rugby and done too little academic work to achieve anything approaching decent grades. Like many of my contemporaries my academic achievements would not even get me an interview at any moderate set of Chambers today. In those days my university and Bar School tuition fees were paid for in full by the local authority. I did not have to pay for the privilege of undertaking pupillage but neither was there any pupillage award. Its equivalent, so far as my pupil master was concerned, was his complete insistence that while I worked with him, I did not pay for lunch or the near daily outings to wine bars around Fleet Street. My pupillage consisted of following my pupil master around various Crown Courts in London with occasional trips to the High Court and working on a variety of criminal and civil papers for him when we were not in court.

As it turned out I was incredibly lucky. When I got to my feet, I was invariably in court every day and often conducting several hearings each day. Most of my first five months on my feet were spent in the Magistrates Court but there were also plenty of appearances in County Courts and in Employment Tribunals.

Three weeks before my tenancy application was due to be considered, my clerks managed to miss a fixture for a senior tenant at Inner London Crown Court – a multi-handed heroin supply case. When I returned to chambers at 11am from a quick hearing at Bow Street Magistrates Court, my senior clerk handed me the papers tied with pink tape, gave me my taxi fare (you can tell how guilty he felt!) and sent me on my way to Inner London. The Judge was, I understand, incandescent before I arrived but took pity on me when I stammered my apologies for my late arrival. However, he was not sufficiently sympathetic to agree to adjourn the case to the following day so that the counsel who had been instructed could undertake the trial. He did, however, grudgingly allow me twenty minutes so that I could speak to my client. My client’s first words to me in the corridor outside court and in the hearing of my prosecutor and a number of my co-defending counsel were “I don’t want no fucking Paki defending me.” I gulped and explained that I was all he was going to get.

My first Crown Court trial had not started in the auspicious way that I had dreamt of. Our relationship never really improved. The next two weeks were spent in a haze of panic, sleeplessness and endless writing and crossing out questions to ask and points to make. I had one point in my favour. The police officer who interviewed my client had neglected to write down that he had cautioned him in accordance with the Judges Rules (this was pre PACE). The more he insisted that he had cautioned my client the sillier he looked. Wise words from one of my co-defending counsel prevailed upon me in that, while I had wanted to make this cross examination last hours so that I would be seen as the new Rumpole of the Bailey (or, at least of Inner London), I only needed to ask half a dozen questions before resuming my seat. In the event, after two weeks my client was acquitted (I still suspect that the Jury felt sorry for him because of his representation) and because the Judge had heard of my difficulties with my client, he insisted on telling my client how fortunate he was in being represented by me.  Two senior members of my chambers were in court waiting to be called on and heard the Judge’s comments. My client didn’t wait to say thank you.

A week later, the Chambers Tenancy meeting took place and thanks in large part to what was reported by those who had been in court, I was offered a tenancy. I was taken for a drink by a senior member who was to become a good friend, Ian Goldsworthy. His advice (only half in jest): “If I were you, my boy, I would give it up now while you still have a 100% success rate.” Two days later and following a trial for shoplifting, my success rate had plummeted to 50%.

The next few years were incredibly busy. I would often spend weeks in the same court with a jury being sent out in one case and immediately starting the next one. One or two judges, I suspect, became heartily fed up with me. My speediest full trial was at Croydon defending a man charged with handling stolen goods. The jury were sworn at 10.35am and returned their verdict at 11.10am (thankfully one of Not Guilty). I was always accompanied by a solicitor’s representative. In many ways, the solicitor’s rep was the glue that held trials together, who could smooth difficulties between counsel and the defendant, who would make notes, be a sounding board and support the advice being given. Those who undertook this task were often people with very substantial experience in attending court with counsel. The vast majority of counsel today have never had that assistance and the system has suffered immeasurably in consequence.

My luck continued. For a long time, from the late 1980’s, I acted for the Police Federation representing Police Officers in discipline hearings and in criminal cases. All of those cases were challenging and some immensely so. But in the process, I represented police officers charged with criminal misconduct, perverting the course of justice, corruption and manslaughter. Some of those represented the highest profile cases of their kind and included the defence of the Guildford 4 and Birmingham 6 police officers and the officers charged with the unlawful killing of Joy Gardner. I represented a retired senior officer in the Macpherson Enquiry following the brutal racist killing of Stephen Lawrence and the grossly inept police investigation that followed. I represented police officers from Regional Crime Squads and the Flying Squad charged with the most serious allegations of corruption.

I was on the Customs List which meant that I split my time prosecuting and defending. I would defend policemen and prosecute suspected drug smugglers and VAT evaders. It was exciting and exhilarating work. It was always rewarding both professionally and financially. Unlike criminal practitioners today, I do not remember worrying about fees or about paying my mortgage or payments to my pension or healthcare or critical illness cover. I was able to save and invest some money. Please do not misunderstand me. I was not wealthy but neither was I struggling to make a decent living.

In 1996, I was asked to become Standing Counsel to the Customs and Excise and having decided to accept that appointment, I resigned from the then nascent monitoring scheme for Treasury Counsel at the Central Criminal Court.

From 1996 to 2001, I was a busy and, I think, successful senior junior undertaking specialised criminal work both defending and prosecuting substantial cases. Those cases were not without moments of substantial humour and embarrassment. On one occasion, I was being led in a trial at Leeds in front of Mr Justice Ognall. My leader was making a submission about which he had not spoken to me and which took me completely by surprise. My usual poker face was clearly absent as Ognall J, (like me, clearly struggling to understand the submission) said at one stage: “Oh Mr X, if only you could see the expression on your junior’s face!”

By now a substantial part of my work was in fraud cases and I would be instructed in cases by and against the Serious Fraud Office.

I took Silk in 2001, two months shy of my 4oth birthday. Again I was lucky. I still defended and prosecuted in the same sort of cases as I had as a Junior but now I was right at the sharp end. And I loved it.

I was one of a number of counsel who were part of a new record for trial length. Between 2003 and 2005 I defended in the longest ever trial in front of a Jury (June 2003 to March 2005) – the Jubilee Line fraud and corruption case. The prosecution had estimated that the trial could take 6 months. Those of us defending thought it could take 12 months. The Judge warned the Jury it could take 18 months. We lost one juror who became pregnant, another who was charged with some allegation of fraud and the trial eventually collapsed when, after 21 months, a further juror simply (and understandably) said he had had enough when the end was nowhere in sight.

I have enjoyed prosecuting and defending in fraud and corruption cases, prosecuting export control cases and defending insider dealing and health and safety cases. More recently I have prosecuted a handful of murder cases. I have had a rich and plentiful diet of appearing in court and advising companies and individuals facing a variety of criminal and regulatory issues.

But my time at the Bar is not defined by the cases that I have undertaken. It is defined by the sense of camaraderie that exists in every case with your co-defending and opposing counsel, the jokes that you make and that are made at your expense and the fact that, however hard you fight in court, you will always enjoy the company of those with whom you have been in fierce dispute when sharing a drink in the pub.

More than anything, my time at the Bar is defined by the friendships I have made. There are simply too many to list here and so I will confine myself to mentioning three people who have been special and inspirational to me and whom I count myself as truly fortunate to be able to describe as close and lasting friends.

Edmund Lawson QC was my mentor and dearest friend at the Bar from my days of pupillage until he died, much too early, at the age of 60 in 2009. He was prodigiously clever and hard working. He had fantastic judgment – almost his first advice to me was: “If you are thinking of doing something but it would make you blush then or if you had to tell someone you respected about it, don’t do it.” But he was much more than those things. Among other things he was modest, fun, generous always great company and someone who made everyone with whom he came into contact feel special. The most difficult speech I have ever had to make was when I delivered the eulogy at his funeral.

I first met Julian Bevan QC when he prosecuted my clients in the Guildford 4 police officers case. He was one of those people who always took his cases seriously but regarded his  own very considerable abilities with much disdain. He was the consummate jury advocate exuding calm and utter restraint. You would never guess that he had, moments before going into court, been a nervous wreck. One of my tasks as his junior was to be able to roll a cigarette for him when his hands were too shaky to put the tobacco in the paper. In one case, I remember vividly how he was able to completely turn a hostile jury by the sheer power of his advocacy, putting difficult propositions into simple words while generating complete trust in what he was saying. He was unbelievably generous to me, constantly recommending me to solicitors for difficult cases. He was and remains a constant source of delight. Now that he is enjoying retirement, I treasure the lunches and dinners when we meet and are able to gossip like adolescent schoolboys.

Ra Healy QC was one of my first pupils in 1992. In many ways, we have grown up at the Bar together albeit that she is rather younger than me. She became my pupil just at the time when my practice was blossoming. I knew I was going to like her when she told me early in her pupillage and with justified confidence that my analysis of some legal issue was completely wrong! In reality she is a proper lawyer and a great advocate. By rights, she should be arguing esoteric points of law in the Chancery Division or the Commercial Court. But she loves being a Jury advocate and she is terrifically good at it. Her sense of irreverence has not deserted her. A few years ago I was leading her in an insider dealing case. When cross-examining an expert on derivates trading, I mis-calculated a percentage difference. When the Judge looked quizzically at me and suggested that my maths was faulty, Ra piped up to say to Judge and Jury “Pah! Just as well he doesn’t style himself as a fancy fraud specialist!”  Over the years she has become a real friend and a confidant. She was the only one at the Bar whom I told when I was thinking of leaving the Bar. With Ra, I know that my leaving Chambers will not change our relationship.

So, the question that I have constantly been asked is: Why leave the independent Bar? The short answer is that I was given the extraordinary opportunity to work in an area in which I am comfortable but with completely new challenges and opportunities. It was, in reality, an opportunity that I could not sensibly refuse.

But it is more than that. Life at the Criminal Bar has become a grind and for many, an intolerable one. The cases that we do are becoming more and more complex. They are uniquely challenging and important for defendants, victims and the public at large. The vast majority of barristers and solicitors doing this work see no future in terms of personal development and financial security to make this a profession that can be enjoyed and sufficiently remunerative to be sustainable.

In the last few years I have seen talented junior members leave the profession to work for the CPS, SFO and FCA as well as joining firms of solicitors. In the main, that is not something that they have wanted to do but something that has been forced upon them.  Those who are doing well (and there are fewer of those than many would think) have seen such extraordinary structural changes in what we do that is done under the most difficult circumstances. Thus and by way of example only, even in high profile murder cases, it is extremely rare to see a solicitor’s representative in court supporting the advocate. It is not just that the fat has been cut from the bone, but huge chunks of flesh have been eviscerated in the drive to achieve economies.

It is positively debilitating as a Head of Chambers when you hear of stories of juniors who cannot afford a train fare to get to court because the CPS or the LAA has failed to make payments long overdue. These are not apocryphal or anecdotal stories. These are things I have seen first-hand.

You may argue that the profession has become too big and that it should be leaner. But I am not here speaking of the dearth of work but the simple fact that the work required to be done, the payments that are made for that work and the way that those payments are made, and often not made, cannot sustain this profession either in its present numbers or in reduced numbers.

However, this is only one part of the problem. The entirety of the Criminal Justice System is in crisis. Successive governments have cut funding to all parts of it, whether in terms of the Legal Aid budget, funds available to prosecutors, police, probation services and prisons. From detection, investigation, trial and all the way through to prison, community penalties and eventual rehabilitation efforts, no government in recent memory has shown any inclination of caring about any of it. And so, at every stage, despite the best efforts of all those involved in every stage of the process, mistakes will occur; short cuts will become common place if that has not already happened.

I have come to the view that unless there is a really substantial injection of funding in all areas of the system, the Criminal Justice system will simply collapse. It will be unrecognisable and will, in reality, be anything but Justice. And by that I do not mean for the direct participants in it but for Society at large. Members of the Bar, Solicitors  and their professional organisations have tried to warn governments of the consequences of under-funding for almost as long as I can remember. Our words have consistently fallen on deaf ears. Even the occasional promises to improve aspects of it have proved illusory. I have no confidence that the position will change.

And so, I am sorry to be leaving the profession but only to an extent. While I am excited by the challenges that I will face in the years to come, I am leaving this profession which has given so much to me with real foreboding. I hope (perhaps in vain) that, in this respect at least, I will be proved wrong.

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2018-10-31T16:57:57+00:00October 31st, 2018|