Look Who's Talking: Of trials and tribulations: The barrister and writer John Mortimer muses on the lessons he has learnt

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TWO and a half thousand years ago, the Greek jury consisted, rather alarmingly, of about 600 people. With the exception of women and slaves, every citizen could sit on the jury. I'd be pretty wary of that. The great test of civilised living is not that the majority would get its way but that the rights of the minority should be respected.

G K Chesterton wrote that, if you want something unimportant done, you call in experts, but if you want something really important done, you choose ordinary people. The number Jesus chose for his disciples: 12.

I have often been asked if I ever defended anyone I knew was guilty. If you are a defender, you are not the judge. You are there to put the defence as well as possible, and stop evidence being given against you, so you are never really proving anything. What you are really saying to the jury, underneath it all, is that a person may or may not be guilty, but can you be absolutely certain?

The greatest principle we've been brought up on is that the prosecution has to prove its case. The awful abolition of the right of silence is the undoing of centuries-old British freedom - just because Michael Howard wants to make a speech to the Conservative Party rally. It's contemptible.

Practically all crime is defended on legal aid. It means that if you murdered, you really got the best defence, whoever you were, and that works very well. It's very bad that they've cut back legal aid, it means solicitors don't get the time they need actually to see people.

We don't have a democracy in Britain, what we do is to elect an all-powerful prime minister every few years, who can do absolutely anything. A prime minister with a majority has total power. I'm not sure if I pine for Mrs Thatcher, but I think it's very healthy to have a clear enemy. Major has a certain comedy value. He's probably quite nice, it's just a terrible tragedy for him, really, that he ever became prime minister.

I don't mind being called a 'champagne socialist' - champagne should be freely available to all, it keeps you amazingly healthy and just opening the bottle makes you feel happier - but it's bad luck on the Labour Party. If you belong to the Labour Party you're meant to be compelled to wear a bobble hat and an anorak, eat muesli and read the newspapers. Yet they don't say the same of the Conservatives, do they? They're allowed to do what they like, and such things shouldn't just be confined to the right wing.

Ever since I came out in favour of fox- hunting I've become a 'stirrup-cup socialist'. I don't go fox-huntinq, I have to say, but my wife, Penelope, does. If there's something that a lot of people want to do which isn't particularly criminal, you shouldn't criminalise it. There's enough people in prison anyway; girls from pony clubs and old masters of foxhounds being banged up would be somewhat ridiculous. Also, everyone against fox-hunting has no idea of the country, country life and what actually happens. I'm impatient with animal rights movements because it's such an easy thing and less important than human rights.

Writing has always been the most important thing in my life, and every waking moment I fear my imagination will dry up. My experience is that the only way to think up plots is to start writing before you know what the hell it is. You get a character who starts talking and, with any luck, what they say will start it all off.

I get up earlier to write now, about 5am. I've often finished by breakfast time, four hours later, and I don't go back to it. I write with a pen and a piece of paper. I don't read newspapers or magazines, but I do review quite a lot of books. And I enjoy reading old Victorian books. Dickens is my favourite writer, then Trollope.

I can't make up my mind about whether I'll do any Rumpoles again or whether I've done enough. I'm thinking about writing a novel next, and have just finished the second volume of my autobiography, Murderers and Other Friends, which comes out in October and contains what I think about life at my age.

I was 71 the other day, and there's nothing I know now that I didn't know at 70. In fact, there's very little I know now which I didn't know when I was 14 - some facts, maybe, but my attitude to life has never changed.

I'd like to keep going for a couple of years. I hope I'll write to the very end, but I'm not sure if anyone will want to read it by then.

John Mortimer appears tonight at 8pm in 'The ABC of Democracy', the first programme in Channel 4's 'Bite the Ballot' season.

(Photograph omitted)

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