Law: No red pens on Fleet Street: Duncan Lamont looks at the trials and tribulations of being a newspaper's night lawyer

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The Independent Online
Court proceedings over, the barristers head for chambers for the next day's brief. Then perhaps another court - squash or tennis - and dinner. Or for a few, a shift as a night lawyer on a daily newspaper.

The usual set-up until the late 1980s was an in-house team of two or three staff lawyers covering daily and Sunday titles. Throughout the day they would be in touch with journalists about stories, and in quiet moments there was time to clear up complaints, publish corrections and settle libel actions. It was rare for these lawyers to burn the midnight oil and at around 6pm, they would hand over to the night lawyer.

His weapon was the coloured pen and each newspaper had its own choice: green for the Mirror, red for the Mail and Express. Legal amendments were thus immediately recognisable. Now there are no coloured pens and little time to catch up on work. The journalists type their stories directly on- screen.

So the night lawyer can only deal with what he sees on a computer, highlight suggested changes, but cannot easily recall what his marks were (or should have been) because the approved copy goes straight back into the system for sub-editing or a rewrite.

Peter Gray, who works for the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror, outlines the problems of juggling a busy practice and evening work. These include getting to the newspaper's offices from the court or chambers in time, and ensuring conferences, and the preparation of cases, are complete before 6pm.

The rewards, he says, encompass the buzz of instant responsibility in a commercial rather than forensic environment, and for an ex-journalist like Peter, the camaraderie is welcome. 'No one stands on their dignity when a big story breaks. Once they have twigged that you are on their side there is a sense of teamwork,' he says.

Editors, he says, have been known to complain if they feel a rival newspaper is getting away with publishing more than they have themselves, while journalists press to include as much as can be legally got away with. But the lawyer has to stand his ground and demand balancing quotes or the deletion of unsupportable allegations. In all this, he has a trump card: contempt of court, which could send an editor to prison. And in any event, damages come out of the editorial budget.

Night lawyering remains a young man's game, although a few experienced barristers keep going for as long as they can - only a judicial appointment or retirement taking them away from the heady atmosphere of the newsroom.

One veteran night lawyer, an urbane diplomat, knew how to reveal the shadow of his ultimate weapon. When the editor sought to impose dubious compromise paragraphs to the front page exclusive, the lawyer said courteously: 'Well the final decision, of course, is yours. By the way, which cigarettes do you smoke?'

Nonplussed, the editor inquired about the relevance of the question. 'I want to make sure I bring the right brand when I visit you in prison,' said the lawyer. A rather less controversial story appeared in the following day's paper.

Simon Williams, a barrister, does shifts for the Star and the Express, not just for the money but also 'to wind down at the end of the day and for a change of atmosphere. I like the fact that there is so much going on as stories break, although sometimes things are very relaxed'.

The night lawyer has a difficult and contradictory job. He is a freelance, but playing a management role. Journalists have no truck with an academic approach to media law.

They want to know how, and in what form, a story can appear. Even a quick response by fax or telephone will not do - the lawyer would be perceived as being protected by distance and unavailable for face-to-face argument.

So despite advances in technology, the night lawyer must continue to argue every amendment and deleted word on the newsroom floor. The media may continue to change, but for the night lawyer the traditions of many decades continue to flourish.

Duncan Lamont worked as a night lawyer for several national newspapers and is now a media solicitor with Biddle & Co.

(Photograph omitted)