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Administration of justice can at times be a meaningless palaver

legal matters

Gormenghast , Mervyn Peake's tale of crumbling decadence and everyday castle life, strangled by ancient, meaningless tradition, was inspired, apparently, by Peake's experiences in the army.

Collecting judgment in the House of Lords in Co-operative Retail Services v Taylor Young Partnership , evoked similar images of magnificence, ceremony and, ultimately, pointlessness.

These days when a court reserves judgment, that is, goes away to think about it rather than give an extempore judgment on the spot, a written version of the judgment is usually circulated to the parties in advance. Any slips are reported back and the corrected version is then formally handed down. The parties usually attend court to pick it up and to argue about costs, but otherwise the judgment just slips into the legal ether.

Not so in the House of Lords. I was alerted to the fact that something was up when I received a page of instructions entitled 'Procedure for Judgement', which is given, not in a court, but in the chamber of the House.

Counsel are required to attend in wig and gown, but leading counsel have to wear their full bottomed wigs. The member of her majesty's counsel I discovered in the robing room struggling to climb under his long wig confessed that it was the first time he'd had cause to wear it since the day of his appointment.

Suitably attired, counsel made their way through the labyrinthine palace to gather outside the Brass Gates in the gilded splendour of the peers' lobby. The instructions were then at pains to make two points. The first was that although judgment is given by means of a series of questions and answers, counsel is not expected to say anything. This was a first. Never before had I been briefed to attend anywhere with express instructions to keep quiet.

The second was to mind the step. 'Oh, yes', the doorkeeper, resplendent in white tie explained.

'They always forget the step, usually trip, and sometimes bring the chair down with them.'

When the House is assembled, the brass gates are thrown open, the cause is announced and counsel are called in. Instead of finding the red leather seats thronged with peers, agog to discover whether design professionals can indeed claim contribution from contractors who are jointly insured with the employer against the subject matter of the claim, the vast chamber was populated only by the handful of law lords who heard the appeal. Between them they reported to each other on the outcome of the appeal, were asked whether they were content or discontent and were, presumably wholly unsurprised to learn that the 'contents' had it.

Proceedings were concluded with a nod to counsel to leave, silently, and sure footed.

Outside in the lobby there was then a crush to obtain copies of the judgment. The team then retired for a celebratory glass, for it transpired that the answer was, no, the design professionals could not claim contribution for fire damage from our contractor clients because the contractors were insured with the employer under the joint names policy.

Of course, it smacks of the ridiculous that the administration of justice should involve such a palaver, but the law will have its traditions. Surprisingly, there is a move afoot, spearheaded by Lord Bingham of Cornhill, to take the lords out of the House and provide them with their own properly equipped, judicially efficient supreme court.

The primary objective for such a move would be to distinguish between the House of Lords as an appellate court and the House of Lords as part of the legislature. At present, the court is wholly independent but its procedures are tied up with the business of government.

The second advantage would be purely practical. As Lord Bingham said in the annual justice lecture last year, it is to be doubted whether any supreme court anywhere in the developed world operates in such cramped conditions.

Lord Bingham may seem an unlikely Steerpike but until such time as he succeeds with his reforms, the splendidly anachronistic business of taking judgment in the House of Lords will continue smoothly enough, provided counsel keep their mouths shut and do not fall flat on their face.

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