Dieu et mon droit - St Bride's: Sermon Series

St Bride's: Sermon Series

Dieu et mon droit

Dieu et mon droit
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If your image of barristers in their professional life, or indeed their private life, is in any way influenced by television dramas, then I'm afraid it's really not like that. In fact, some of the dramas that I've seen would be more accurately described as surreal comedy of Pythonesque proportions.

We are often depicted as taking a flamboyant part in dramatic criminal trials, for example just down the road at the Old Bailey. It is right to say that criminal law is one very important branch of the profession; but it is far from the only one.

If you venture up the road in the other direction to the Royal Courts of Justice you will find, for example, in the family courts, barristers appearing in cases and assisting the Court in deciding on the welfare of children at risk in society. In Judicial Review proceedings government bodies are held to account when they act in excess of their powers or otherwise improperly. Those that followed the Leveson Enquiry would have seen barristers at work helping to investigate the relationship between the right to privacy and the right to a free press. In Employment Tribunals up and down the country, cases debate whether discrimination has taken place not just at work, but in many other areas - discrimination on grounds of race, gender, age disability and, yes, religion too.

If I were to try and put what we do into very short form, or define the currency in which we deal, it would be the protection and enforcement of rights and duties. To take an extreme contrast, in the regimes imposed by the Taliban, other religious beliefs are persecuted and the right of education is refused to women purely on the basis of their gender. If that were to happen to one person, let alone an entire group in this country, then the law would protect them.

Jesus said that the meek are blessed and that they shall inherit the earth.  I don't think he intended us to stand by and watch as they are ground into the dirt in the meantime.

So the first thing I would say about my faith and my profession is that the one is very comfortable with the other.


But let me deal with what I would call the dinner party question; how can you represent someone that you know is guilty? In the wider scope of things, how can you represent the person who wants to discriminate or otherwise interfere with someone's rights? Let's assume that all cases are black and white for the purposes of this argument which they are absolutely not.

The first part of the answer is that we operate under a very strict code of professional conduct. Unlike in those tv dramas, clients come to us and tell us what happened; we don't them what to say to improve their chances of acquittal or to maximise their damages. We advise on the legal consequences of what we are told and sometimes that advice is as blunt as it is unwelcome; but it is our duty to give it. If a client tells us that he will lie in court, or asks us to put forward a version of events which is different to that which he has given us, we cannot represent him. In my field of law, if a client discloses to me a document which undermines his case, I have to show it to the other side. In short, we cannot mislead the court and we cannot mislead our opponents. It is a profession based on honesty and trust no matter what you may hear to the contrary. To my mind, those are Christian values.

In terms of the dinner party question, the answer is that it is not for us to judge our clients; that is the court's job.  Unless a client tells a criminal barrister that he is guilty and that he is going to lie on oath, it is the duty of that barrister to represent the client to the best of his ability and let the Court decide. If we were otherwise  such cases as the Guildford Four and the Birmingham six would have never achieved justice. Sally Clark would have tragically died with a wrongful conviction against her name based on flawed scientific evidence. Those flaws and injustices were exposed by the legal process.

In non criminal cases it has to be remembered that the Courts do not make the law, they apply it. If the so called bad guy has the law on his side then justice dictates that he should succeed; the alternative is an arbitrary and therefore unjust system of law. If the law requires changing then it is for parliament to do so. Again , this all assumes that cases are all black and white which they rarely are; for example, spare a thought for judges who have to decide between the right of a man to end his own life with the help of others in the face of a chronic terminal condition as balanced against the law of homicide.

And so it is that we find ourselves sometimes representing people and cases that we might not like; but that again is our duty.

I was very recently instructed on behalf of a london borough in an emergency High Court Application; as is the usual practice I looked up my opposite number on his chambers web site. I noted two things about him. The first was that he had been knighted by the Pope for services to the catholic church. The second was that he counted amongst his previous clients both Joan Collins and Silvio Berlesconi; as they say in those dramas, I rest my case.

Am I saying that all those in my profession are in it for the greater good? Certainly not. There are plenty who are in it for the greater ego and the greater bank balance;  I have my fair share of bills to pay. But before you condemn us all as fat cats, take a look, for example,  at the website of the Bar Pro Bono Unit which represents over a thousand people a year free of charge where funding would not otherwise be available.

The second point, therefore, that I would make about my faith is that it is comfortable with the way my profession is conducted.

As for personal ambition, professionally I have very little. I have the two appointments in life which matter to me and they are husband and father. I would much rather be remembered as a good husband and father that happened to be a barrister than the other way round.

If you think that the bar is an easy life then I would refer you to Lucy and Archie who will tell you that I work far too many hours.  But if I have to spend many hours at my desk in chambers there are two great advantages. The first is that my chambers are well know for being friendly and approachable. Unlike those dramas there are no internal political wars. We have a mutual respect and affection for each other. Indeed, we are like a family. Whilst some might not put it in these terms, we exhibit many Christian values and it is why I am so comfortable there.

The second benefit of my chambers is that they are within the sound of the bells of St Brides. Indeed, it must be over fifteen years ago that I was working in the Sabbath, and there goes another commandment, and was drawn to evensong. Once was enough; I had found a place full of Christian spirituality and friendship; not to mention the wonderful music for all of which thank you so much. Archie's christening will always be one of the happiest memories that Lucy and I have and better than any case I have ever won. It is a privilege to serve as a Guildsman and to be asked to speak to you today.

I often come into St Brides when I am at work, for a few quiet moments. I may just need to recharge the spiritual batteries, or to get away from the papers, the screen and the phone and to put my job back in its rightful place. It may be happy times when I thank God for yet another gift. It may may be in times of sadness.

One such time of sadness was earlier this year, when my dear dear friend and colleague, Peter Harrison, died in tragic circumstances. I came here to pray for him and his family who, I am honoured to say, are here today. I am very grateful and honoured to dedicate this lecture to his memory.

If you have any doubt that a barrister can be a devout Christian, a man of immense integrity both in and out of work, a man of honour and a priceless friend; the please please don't look to me. Much of my time in St Brides is spent confessing my many weaknesses. Please do though, ask anyone who knows Peter, and their eyes will light up, and from the bottom of their heart they will tell you that he was a spiritual giant amongst men; I miss him so very much. May God bless him, his family and friends and all of you. Amen.

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