Lawyers put in a few words for long speeches: John Arlidge reports on the barristers' defence against claims that court time is wasted

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The Independent Online
BARRISTERS, not noted for being economical with words, denied at length yesterday that they were 'too prolix'.

They were responding to proposals this week by a working party set up by the Lord Chancellor to consider ways to speed up trials. One senior barrister said the plans were 'unrealistic'.

Robert Rhodes QC, whose closing speech in the Barlow Clowes fraud trial in January lasted a week, said that attempts to speed up complicated trials could impede barristers' efforts to represent their clients.

The days of the Tichborne claimant - an 1880s trial in which counsel for an imposter who had claimed a baronetcy spent four weeks opening his case - were over but, he said, complex cases required careful explanation.

In February 1988, a barrister who took 28 hours to make his closing speech was disbarred. Beriston Bryan admitted wasting the court's time through repetition, unfamiliarity with details of the case and pursuing irrelevant points.

The fraud trial, at Southwark Crown Court, was expected to last 15 days but took 75 at a cost to the public of more than pounds 200,000.

In court Mr Bryan had said he was 'sick' of the prosecuting counsel 'who keeps jumping up and down interrupting me'. His lengthy efforts did not prevent the jury finding his client, Semiyu Kassim, a Nigerian business student, guilty of obtaining more than pounds 5,000 by deception.

After being struck off Mr Bryan was 'unavailable for comment'.

Mr Rhodes said: 'The Barlow Clowes speech was certainly the longest I have ever made. It took me several weeks to write. But it took 18 months to prepare for the trial. There were 200 lever arch files of exhibits alone. The case lasted seven months and the body of evidence was so vast that without a lengthy speech I could not have done justice to my client's case. He was acquitted.

'In general, I think barristers are rather less long-winded than politicians. Most barristers present their cases with conciseness and precision. They want to get on with it. It is only the rare bad egg that spins things out.'

Trying to fix fees in advance might not persuade privatelyinstructed barristers to 'get a move on' because they could still receive daily 'refreshers' from their clients.

He said: 'Members of the junior Bar still have a pouch on the back of their gowns, called the black purse. In the past private clients sitting behind their counsel in court would put 'refreshers' in the purse to keep him going like a taxi . . . Refreshers are still provided but in a less obvious way.'

In the North, he added, where there are more cases per barrister, counsel often work quicker than in the South where they have fewer briefs and more time.

Barristers emphasise that judges can report them for misconduct if they ramble. Fees can be reduced if attention is drawn to time wasting and judges can order the barrister to pay 'wasted costs'. A QC said: 'If it is the sixth time round the houses on a particular point, the judge can intervene or, if the repetition continues, report the chap to the Bar Council.'