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When the hurly burly's done and the battle's lost and won

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legal matters

The Fates, upon hearing how dull life at the bar can be (aj 13.4.00), immediately contrive for me to be thrown into the hurly burly of a trial. It went something like this. A few years ago, a young couple bought their docklands penthouse from a national company of housebuilders. They complained that the floor squeaked when they walked on it. The builders denied that there was anything wrong and (rather unwisely) declined to inspect when the floor was replaced. For the duration of the remedial works, the couple moored their yacht in Limehouse marina and moved aboard. They claimed from the housebuilders the cost of the works and lost charter revenue for the yacht. The builders, rather surprised at the cost of it all, denied liability and the scene was set for a three day trial in, (of all places) the Chancery Division.

The week before trial: my solicitor telephones to apologise for not sending the trial papers but, she has been away, the expert has been ill and the claimants have recently served new information about their case that no one has had time to consider. This is all news to me, particularly the trial. I observe that it is difficult make any intelligent contribution without knowing anything about the case but suggest that it may be necessary to apply for an adjournment.

The Friday before trial: professional commitments prevent me from applying to adjourn the trial. Hearing about the judge's piranha-style approach to the application from the hapless junior tenant who did attend, I am not sorry. So the trial will go ahead, the trial papers have finally arrived and I have a weekend to find out what it is all about. I stay late in chambers on Friday night reading the six files of trial papers. I form some preliminary views as to our prospects. They are more or less commensurate with those of a snowball in a very hot place.

Saturday: I pitch up in chambers at the same time as one of the commercial silks. We exchange the banter of barristers who are so busy that they have to work weekends preparing for a High Court trial. I note three basic facts:

my trial concerns £50,000 compared with his £7.5 million

we are going to lose

I would rather be at home with my children.

I complete the final version of the Scott Schedule and my skeleton argument. I work tirelessly with the calculator. Despite best endeavours the bottom line comes up as 'a lot of money'.

Sunday: surely there has never before been such a beautiful spring day, I think, cycling to chambers again. After a morning surrounded by files, law books and schedules. I meet with the client, the solicitor and the expert for the first time. We discuss the figures. I suggest that a last minute offer of £30,000 might clinch it. The client's legal director shakes his head, 'the financedirector won't like it'.

Monday: my opponent telephones, not to congratulate me on my succinct skeleton and concessions of liability but to harass me about administrative matters. She gives the distinct impression that it was her floor and that it was me who installed it. We attend at Court 15 and I make my last-ditch offer. She laughs and opens the case before the judge. The issues are (1) floor (2) damp and(3) yacht. I make great play about the damp - clearly our best point. I wave a bit of dishwasher hose about to make good my argument that a defective floor will not make a dishwasher leak. It's a pity it accounts for a tiny fraction of the claim. My 'expert' is cross examined. It turns out that he hasn't read the rics guidelines for experts and works as a consultant for the housebuilders. He agrees that he has a conflict of interest. I summarise the position to the client thus: 'we are going down the pan.'

Wednesday: we attend court for judgment. The good news: the housebuilders win on the dishwasher point. The bad: the claimants get judgment for £39,885, indemnity costs and interest at 10 per cent above base. I wonder how the finance director will like that.

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