Polly Toynbee

Polly Toynbee

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Barristers?We think we know them well. We've watched so many episodes of KavanaghQC or Rumpole of the Bailey. We've seen old Charles Laughton and Alastair Sim strut their stuff in black and white. Fine courtroom dramas such as Witness for the Prosecution, 12 Angry Men and Perry Mason fill our memories. We hold our breath and wait for the last-minute coup, that triumphant arrival of the crucial piece of evidence and we sigh with pleasure as the good wig trumps the snarling bad wig.Justice is always done.

Too many barristers are far closer to dealing-room wide boys on the make than social workers or advocates of truth.

In the past barristers have mainly been middle-aged club men: upper class, pompous and a bit out of date. Not quite as bad as those "Who are the Beatles?" judges but well on the way. No longer. Roll over Rumpole, here (in the second episode) are the young Turks of North Square (Wednesdays C4) who make the law look hip.
This flashy drama shows us post-modern young barristers who only want one thing - to win. Ruthless and often unscrupulous, they are not driven by a wish to do good (nor were the old lot - those old movies were fibbing about the glories of the law). This shows a brutal honesty about the real nature of too many barristers: they are far closer to city traders, dealing-room wide boys on the make than anything resembling social workers or advocates of truth. Truth is neither here nor there, getting a result is all that matters. Stocks and shares rising and falling on the whim of cowboy speculators may make and lose fortunes, but these barrister lads' games can destroy lives.
The programme is set in a new chambers in Leeds where competition for work is fierce between just a few firms. The staff are young and hungry. They live and breathe their work, conduct affairs with their colleagues and have no time for a life beyond fighting the next case. In a nice scene, two of these young boy racers rip off their gowns and wigs and strip down to their Calvin Kleins to the sound of their loud stereo, emerging cool and sharply dressed, hair-gelled lads who could just as well have been in the defendant's box.
The linchpin in any barristers chamber is the chief clerk and the example played by Philip Davies in North Square is no exaggeration of this curious and Dickensian species. He takes ten per cent of every barrister's fee and does all the wheeling and dealing to bring in the business. He not only sweet-talks all the local solicitors into sending him their cases for court, but he heavy-drinks all the local big criminals: the bigger the gangster, the more money he spends on lawyers.
The relationship between chief clerks and their barristers is ripe for drama. It follows the classic joke where the master is subservient to the servant - think Figaro and Bartolo. Chief clerks work their way up, learning the trade from the age of 16 with a master of the art. Barristers are terrified of them, for their careers depend entirely on which cases the clerk hands them.
This fast-cut, zippy series is more about the barristers and their lives than about the way the law works. But it does raise all kinds of questions. Is the adversarial system really the best,where the only aim of the two sides is to win, not to discover the truth? The French and many other countries have an inquisitorial system that many think gets closer to justice being done. These strutting young barristers who only want to prove their prowess to do some wicked things to some of their humbler clients - though of course we also see them becoming closely involved with some cases.
It is certainly an odd world, this strange intersection where the bottom and the top of society collide in court. Every citizen should make a point of sitting in a court one day to watch the curious traffic between the most hopeless and helpless and this best-paid, most prestigious profession representing them. Why should defending lowlifes have accrued this glorified status? It's sad and shameful that so many of the middle classes and professionals of working age choose not to do jury service, missing their turn to watch over some of what is done in their name. It's become so easy to get out of it that older age groups are over-represented. Everyone has strong views on law and order; but far too few people know what justice looks and smells like in a court. Instead we take it from films and television. Or worse still we imagine the truth lies in the brief and sensationalised newspaper versions of court proceedings that usually omit so much. Tabloids may boom away about "lenient" sentences but more often than not they conveniently leave out crucial factors.
It's doubtful anyone watching this enjoyable and largely amoral series will have their faith and trust in the law improved. But they will get a realistic snapshot of the glamorous end of it. No doubt applications to study law will soar after this modish, laddish portrait of cool and lucrative life under the wig.





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Email:Radio Times  21 - 27 September 2000 File Info: Created 17/9/2000 Updated 15/11/2000 Page Address: http://www.fortunecity.com/emachines/e11/86/toynbee10.html