It is not for me to comment on the particulars of criminal proceedings where I was not present, as much can be lost in translation, especially in Birmingham. It is foolhardy and often dangerous to sound off when not in possession of the full facts, as appears to have happened recently in a trial involving ‘drug barons’ who turned out to be nothing of the sort.
What concerns me the most is not the quality of the adversarial cut and thrust of the advocates, conspicuous by its absence, but by the extraordinary behaviour of the judge, whom I shall not name to preserve the dignity of his office. Suffice it to say that Judge Francis Laird was so exercised by the monumental incompetence of the prosecution, nothing new there I’m afraid, that he called prosecution counsel to go into the witness box (or stand as the cub reporter was fond of calling it) and give evidence on oath. Counsel promptly fainted, but notwithstanding, having been allowed a few minutes to compose himself, tried to argue the unarguable.
There are several problems about the judge’s decision to victimize prosecution counsel. The first and most obvious was his insistence that counsel go into the witness box. This is improper and unheard of and irresponsible. The second is that this kangaroo court was in public, so counsel’s discomfort was plain for all to see. Quite how he is going to repair the damage to his reputation is a matter of conjecture. The third problem was the wholly improper suggestion by defence counsel that prosecution counsel had deliberately misled the court. In fairness to him, this conduct was rather forced on him. If the judge felt this was a proper way to behave, he should have assumed the responsibility himself and not palmed it off.
Whatever happened to the Honorable Profession to which every barrister must belong before he can practise at the Bar?
What Judge Laird seems to have forgotten, if he knew it in the first place, is that by convention, counsel act on instructions given to them by their solicitors, in this case by the Clown Prosecution Service. If those instructions give rise to professional embarrassment, then counsel must withdraw and return the brief. This is basic stuff learned in pupillage. If the judge insists that counsel go into the witness box to be cross-examined on oath, counsel should politely decline to do so, and if the judge persists, he should leave court and refer the judge’s conduct to the Bar Council and to the Lord Chancellor’s department. This is the way grown ups behave.
This whole farrago reflects very badly on all parties. The judge should go on a refresher course, as should counsel, and the CPS, at fault once again, should never have permitted their counsel to fend off this hostile judge without coming to his aid.