Master of the Labyrinth

Times Online, May 19, 2006

One of my formative experiences in the law was courtesy of a fusty old Master whose name eludes me for fear that he will sue. He was ancient then, and may well now be dead, but it is best to be safe rather than sorry. Henceforth, therefore, I will refer to him simply as Top Cat.

Top Cat was one of an elite breed. His domain was far from the animated alleyways of the eponymous cartoon feline but, instead, the creaking labyrinthine maze that is the Royal Courts of Justice. As a Master, Top Cat operated as a judicial officer of the High Court whose remit tended to the prosaic rather than the profound. Masters are invisible entities to all but lawyers, who shuffle before them to argue procedural points in interim hearings. Their existence is vital – without them, dates for trials would never be set, parties would never disclose documents to one another, witness statements would not be exchanged. It is fair to say, indeed, that without Top Cat and his ilk the entire edifice of civil litigation would collapse.

As a young putative solicitor, I would often appear before Masters to hone my advocacy skills. A tendency to malapropism, too many hangovers and sundry speech impediments made this a wearisome task, but I would do my best. One day, on the back of a couple of miraculous victories, my boss despatched me to fight the good fight in a dispute over the ownership of an oil painting, whose provenance was as dubious as my client’s claim. No matter. Lawyers do not exist to make value judgements. To court I sallied to argue.

The form dictates that one finds the Master’s lair and then asks if the figure lurking in the shadows (it is gloomy in the labyrinth) is one’s opponent. "I am," said my adversary, deigning to lift his head from a massed pile of academic tomes for a second. "Shall we let Top Cat know that we are here?"

He did not, of course, use the term "Top Cat," but no one wants to be sued for libel so let us pretend that he did. We alerted Top Cat to our existence and, as is the way of things, were summoned into his chambers. "Sit!" he boomed, before either of us could even manage the requisite "Good afternoon, Master." We took our seats on a table itself set some foot or two below a rampant that Top Cat had fashioned for himself. At least, it looked like a rampant. In fact, Top Cat’s desk was on a dais at the end of the room, and beneath it, a minion had placed the table at which supplicants would prostrate themselves. The imagery is a product only of my scars, not of reality, but there we sat, waiting.

"Yes, what?" said Top Cat, as if our appearance was of the utmost impertinence. His fearsome hiss was the stuff of legend, but my opponent rose manfully to the task, armed as he was by some four hundred text books. He cowered behind them, as if he were Jonathan Aitken wielding a trusty sword of truth. "We are here, Master," said he, "in the matter of X, which, as you will be aware, has reached the stage of exchange of witness statements. We say that an order should be made compelling exchange in toto, but my friend, I suspect, will contest this."

I looked at Top Cat for a sign, but he glared at me. My opponent continued, blinding me with references to obscure sub-sections of arcane statutes and nimbly proffering excerpts of apposite legalese whenever necessary. He must have spoken for some 30 minutes, throughout which Top Cat merely grunted, muttered and yawned.

Eventually, it seemed, my opponent had finished. I looked expectantly at Top Cat. He ignored my yearning glance. He ignored my opponent too. Silence descended like a tear in the layout of a famous cartoon strip.

The unease was intolerable, I had to say something. A vague feeling of eureka stirred and I was sure that I had the answer. Yes, eloquence and insight were mine, at once. I would speak. Top Cat would turn and say "Hmm, interesting point and well made, young man. Order granted in your client’s favour."

I moved a few papers by way of subtly heralding my opening. "Master," I began, "surely the answer is…"

"SHUT UP!" shouted Top Cat. "Won’t you just shut up?!"

Stunned, given that this was all I had said for the entire hearing, and no little hurt, I did as I was told. Top Cat and my opponent waffled on into the depths of the afternoon. My opponent’s efforts were in vain – when it was time to go, Top Cat said that the hearing would be adjourned, and when we (as protocol requires) said "Thank you, Master," he screamed: "Get out! Just get out!"

The labyrinth is a scary place to be. These days I prefer cartoons