In the Bear garden

Independent on Sunday: Talk of the Town, March 2003

As a strategic manoeuvre, it was unusual. Lawyers like their ruses but resort to honesty only under duress. Here, outside the Bear Garden, was truthfulness so bald that there had to be something very wrong indeed. It was a procedural hearing in the middle of a libel action. These take place before fusty old Masters deep within the labyrinthine recesses of the Royal Courts of Justice. A Master is a junior judge, sprightly at around 80. His (they are invariably male) role is to adjudicate between two sides trying to secure a tactical advantage for the future conduct of the case.

Usually attended by junior solicitors, the hearings occur in chambers next to the Bear Garden, so called because the various combatants for the day strut up and down its blood-red carpets, arms flapping and briefcases agape, mentally tormenting their opponents much as two boxers stare each other out at the weigh in.

It was dour November day but for once the Bear Garden had something other than law to think about. In had staggered a young trainee solicitor, clutching a tattered file, dishevelled and red-eyed. He had lurched around the room, evidently looking for his adversary. Anyone in his wake got a blast of neat vodka.

Our hero was more than a little jaded. He was still drunk. What he had been doing the night before no one knew, but it was clear he hadn’t been reading the file. Somehow, this mouldy, once-bright yellow object had survived whatever excesses he had put himself through. There it was, a yellow badge of courage, on the table in front of him as he collapsed into one of the ancient wooden benches in the Bear Garden. Bravely, he opened it; vainly, he tried to make some sense of the obscure language, something about a request for further and better particulars of the further and better particulars of the further and better particulars of the statement of claim.

What could this mean? It’s difficult enough when sober but still drunk from the night before? Forget it. Soon enough, the young man’s opponent arrived. She could have been everything in his dreams, but emerged now as a living, breathing, perfectly executed nightmare. Svelte and elegant, brunette hair in a bob, mercilessly professional. And with a brand new blue lever arch file, which she held decorously as she looked for him.

“Excuse me, are you Mr X?” she said to our man, having exhausted every other lawyer in the room. He confessed that he was. She asked if his client was willing to consent to an amendment to the directions sought. He stared at her blankly and then opted for rising to his full, hungover height. This was a mistake, no sooner was he vertical than he keeled over, across the table, onto his trusty yellow file.

A hush fell in the Bear Garden. Our man plucked at the contents of the file, scattered here and there. His beautiful inquisitor-to-be stared at him like a heavyweight boxer about to fight a man of straw. You never punch a man when he’s down, and she waited, until he was once again as upright as he would ever be that morning. “Well, do you have any instructions from your client? Any proposals? Or shall we argue it in front of the Master?”

The young trainee opened his mouth and seemed about to engage in legal argument. But he knew it was useless. Instead, he threw himself on her mercy. The Bear Room was treated to a plea never made by the late George Carman Q.C., perhaps never made by any lawyer, anywhere. It went like this: I got drunk last night, I am still drunk now, I have not read the file, this yellow file, though it went everywhere with me, and I have no idea what you’re talking about. Please can you spare me the torture of the hearing and just agree to what my client wants?

She shook her head, in bewildered sympathy. The great and the good of the Bear Room tutted and smirked. Our hero was about to be flayed alive by the Master, which would make for some rather good sport. Beauty and the beast duly went into chambers. The Master took one look at the papers, and let out a long sigh. There was an ‘irregularity.’ He adjourned the hearing before a word was said.

The law works in mysterious ways.