Five-Minute Memoir: Charity Norman recalls a very bad day at the Bar


It was a Friday morning, almost a quarter of a century ago, and my clerk had sent me to a far-flung Crown Court. I'd been on my professional feet only a matter of weeks; my wig was still dazzlingly white.

My most valued possession was a copy of 'Archbold', the criminal practitioner's Bible. I clutched this shield against my chest, hoping to deflect spears of sarcasm from judges who – to my youthful eyes – seemed incalculably ancient. Under my other arm nestled two very slim briefs, both of which I knew by heart.

On this particular day I was especially uneasy, and with good reason: my cases were listed first in Court One (we'll call him His Honour Judge X) and second in Court Two (Her Honour Judge Z). I'd been aghast when my clerk broke this news to me.

"First and second on?" I whispered, gulping. "In two different courts?" He waved an airy hand. "Not a problem."

"But what if I'm late into Court Two? Judge Z eats people." There are many rules to life at the Bar, and one of them is Never Keep a Judge Waiting. During my pupillage, I'd witnessed several unfortunate souls scurrying in tardily with their wigs awry, spilling unctuous apologies. I had squirmed for them.

The clerk landed an avuncular pat on my back. "There's a six-handed Affray first up in her court. You'll have plenty of time, Miss Norman." He called me "Miss Norman" only to my face; "Chazza" to my back. I knew it, and he knew that I knew it. When it came to the see-saw of power, he had all the weight. Fair enough, too. He was a marvel.

Things went awry from the first. Judge X began his list late; I forget why. Then the Prosecution's opening of my Appeal seemed endless, while I fidgeted and fretted. Finally His Honour, who was sitting with two magistrates, announced that they would rise to deliberate.

Rise? I raved silently, feeling a clutch of dread. Why the hell do you want to rise? My case is hopeless, damn it!

They rose. The minutes passed. Sweat gathered under my very white wig. Finally the trio meandered back and – to my astonishment – allowed the Appeal. My lay client sprang free as the next case was called, and a band of swarthy men trooped into the dock. That was when the kindly usher from Court Two appeared, beckoning frantically.

"C'mon!" she mouthed from the doors. "Judge is waiting."

Her words froze the blood in my veins. With a pounding heart I rushed to follow, but found my way barred. The old building sported high ceilings and wooden panelling; I daresay the ghosts of highwayman lurked in its shadows. It certainly wasn't designed for speedy escapes. The advocates sat along a wooden bench, and I was in the middle. To my right, two grandfathers slumbered; gouty fellows with yellowed wigs who seemed oblivious to my muttered "Excuse me". To my left, the woman who had prosecuted my Appeal sat deep in conversation with her instructing solicitor. Possibly she was a gentle soul at heart, but that day she seemed a merciless carnivore. I dared not ask her to move.

Staring wildly around me, I saw my chance. Of course! I had merely to hop over the back of the bench, and I would be free. I'd vaulted many a five-barred gate, having worked for a New Zealand shearing gang. Swift action was required. Laying my hand on the wooden rail behind the seat, I launched myself into the air with what I felt sure was casual athleticism. As I did so, two things happened.

First, I discovered that this part of the seating was raised up with a sort of chasm behind it, so that I was about to drop six feet. The effect might have been no more than painful had my gown not snagged in mid-leap, causing my sporty vault to turn into a nose dive. And there I stuck. It is quite a challenge to uphold the majesty and dignity of the British legal system when suspended upside-down in mid-air, arms flailing, blinded by the skirt and gown enveloping one's face. I have no idea how long my fruit-bat impersonation lasted before the gown unsnagged and gravity plumped me unceremoniously to the ground.

Well, the years passed. My wig lost its Persil newness, and I my girlish figure. Judges seemed mysteriously to grow younger and younger, until the tragic day when I began to think that some were positively dishy. Life has brought challenges and triumphs, but through the decades I have been comforted by one thought: no matter what clangers I drop, what acts of clumsiness or social gaffes, I'll never outdo the moment when a Circuit Judge, two lay magistrates, an entire public gallery, a dock officer and five Class A drug dealers… all saw my knickers.

Charity Norman's novel, 'After the Fall', is published on 3 January by Allen & Unwin