‘Look, it’s easy – JPS has to do the sentence that’s reserved to Judge Jones and the two Plea and Fixes for Goldberg, Singh and Co. You either have to get them all in the same court, or else up and down the lists so he can get between courts.’ That was all the advice that Donna, the first junior clerk,1 gave me before packing me off to the Crown Court for the daily listing meeting. I had successfully attended my first listing meeting a couple of weeks earlier, but that was the chancery meeting. This was different: at least, that was what Donna had said. She had also said a lot about not being stitched up and keeping an eye on Bob from Prince’s Court as he was well known for not playing by ‘the rules’.
I didn’t know what ‘the rules’ were. Not did I really know what I was doing. The senior clerk was entertaining clients2 and so Donna couldn’t fulfil her normal role of keeper of the criminal lists. As far as I could see this seemed to take up most of Donna’s working life. She was always checking lists, then going to listing meetings and coming back and putting cases in the diary. There were all sorts of different criminal listing meetings; daily, weekly, High Court: it was very confusing. I had a basic understanding from my chancery experience, but it seemed the daily meeting was a bit more involved and somewhat more briskly paced.
John from the Equity Court was trying to explain it in more detail as we walked the short distance to the concrete monstrosity that was the Crown Court. ‘The listing officer will read out the list for the next day one case at a time. You need to write it down as she reads it, and we shout out if we have an interest in that case and who we act for. You need to note who is against you in your cases because you may want to move that case and it’s only proper that you consult them. Alternatively they might want to move the case and you want to keep an eye on it in case they are a bit sly and stitch you up when you aren’t looking.’
‘Like Bob from Prince’s?’ I asked.
‘Exactly. But you don’t want to say that too loud. Bob’s alright, but cross him and you’ll know about it. You have to watch him, he’s a sly dog,’ chuckled John.
This still sounded relatively straight-forward. Write the list, shout out who you are in it for, note who’s against you, get your cases fixed up so your barristers can do them, easy peasy. I was feeling pretty confident about this – I didn’t have many cases to worry about and it should be a breeze.
‘Just a couple of things to watch out for. Defence takes priority over prosecution, first defendant over second, third, etc. Some cases are reserved to judges and can’t be moved. Some cases have to be heard by a certain seniority of judge. The case’s original position generally trumps anyone trying to move it if there is a dispute. Appeals and committals are normally left for Assistant Recorders and they don’t tend to mix them with normal plea lists. If you find yourself…’ John tailed off as he looked at my face. All the colour had rapidly drained from my cheeks, and as a half-Irish Mancunian there wasn’t much to start with. My mouth had dropped open and there were beads of sweat forming on my brow. There was so much to remember! What was I going to do?
‘You’ll be fine,’ said John, clapping me on the back, ‘they’re all good clerks, we’ll look after you.’
John pushed open the door to the bar clerks’ room – and it was packed! Nearly all the seats were taken. There were 20 faces glancing up at us as we walked in; I was so panicked I didn’t notice one or two had recognised me and were smiling and nodding. John ushered me to my seat and whispered to me that I had to sit in the same place at every meeting as we took it in turns to start our representation. I was really scared now. Every time John opened his mouth it was to tell me about some new rule which … Wait! Were these ‘the rules’? Was I going to be branded a no-good type who stitched up his follow clerks simply because I didn’t have a clue what I was doing? I have always been a relatively self-confident fellow,3 but I was suffering from a massive crisis of confidence. Before I could get my bearings the listing officer walked in.
She bustled to her allotted seat in the middle of the table, dumped a pile of strange-looking things and muttered a grumpy ‘good afternoon’ to all. Before we could collectively respond she had started. I was still staring at the strange items she had dropped onto the table in front of her. They were 10 metal frames about a foot and a half long and a foot wide. Each frame held dozens of thin strips of white cardboard, most of which contained text which I assumed detailed each case.
‘OK, Court One the Recorder of Manchester with Jones and his mates which I’m reliably informed won’t finish until Christmas. Court Two not sitting. Court Three Judge Barry QC the jury is out on Khan and his mates, he’s sworn the jury in on Smith and that will finish on Friday morning. Court Four Recorder Bleese sitting at ten on the reserved sentence of…’
She kept rapidly firing out courts and judges and cases names, when I suddenly realised that everyone else was scribbling down every word she said. I grabbed my pencil and tried to catch up. As the listing officer moved on to Court Five there was a long list of cases, and each time she read out a name it was punctuated by calls from the clerks around the room.
‘I’m for the first defendant.’
‘I’m for the third.’
I had no idea who was saying what. I didn’t know who half of the people were. But I did my best to keep a note of it all. I remembered to shout out when it came to my cases and to make a note of who was against me, even if it was recorded as ‘big bloke at the end’ or ‘girl with glasses’. Once the list had all been recited and we had performed our responses4 it was time for the main event. We now went round the table and took it in turn one at a time to put forward our requests. I was third in the queue and so got the chance to see how it worked. Dave from 24 Lion Street wanted to move the sentence of Smith from Court Eight to Court Ten; my mate John was against him and was happy to move Smith as long as the plea of Chubb and Chubb went with it. The other clerks in Chubb had no objection, and so the listing officer would move the little cardboard strips from one metal frame to another which translated to moving from one court to another. Suddenly it was my turn. I had got lucky: two of my cases were in the same court, so all I had to do was move my plea and fix from Court Eleven to Court Seven. I had written BB next to this case, which, in my clever shorthand, was ‘big bloke at the end’. Not knowing his name, I leaned forward and peered in his general direction hoping to catch his eye as I made my request.
He leaned forward and his stare bore into my very soul.5
‘Sorry sahn,’ a deep cockney voice rumbled across the table, ‘can’t help you there – I’ve got a mention in that same court.’
It was then I realised who ‘big bloke at the end’ was.
It was Bob from Prince’s Court.
To be continued…
1 There is a hierarchy to the clerks’ room: the first junior clerk is the senior clerk’s deputy and second-most important clerk. There were filing cabinets more important than me.
2 Getting so drunk that I had to go and help him into a taxi at about 6pm.
3 Cocky little b*****d, according to the senior clerk.
4 Being forced to go to church from a young age, it reminded me a bit of church with the vicar leading the way and the congregation mumbling the appropriate responses.
5 Maybe I am being a little dramatic, but it scared the living daylights out of me.