Every profession or calling has one question asked by members of the public more than any other. My barrister husband and a photographer friend once took a leaf out of Prince Charming and Dandini's book and swapped roles for the day. The photographer told him that the public assume that all photographers do weddings and that as long as he could explain how to do a 'top shot' of the assembled guests, his cover would not be blown. In turn the photographer was warned that upon learning that he was a barrister he would be asked 'how do you defend someone you know to be guilty?'.
Every barrister will deal with this albatross in their own way. I used to counter that you don't know unless you were there at the time, in which case you would be a witness for the prosecution rather than counsel for the defendant. A few years later I was able to say that the really worrying thing was to act for someone you knew to be innocent. In fact the short (and, for most, rather baffling) answer is that I don't do crime any more. Acting for innocent defendants is much the same, however, as acting for privately funded individuals. A colleague in chambers involved in a long and expensive boundary dispute was given a lift home by his clients after court one day. They pointed out that they were in the car that would have to be sold if they lost. Recent events have reminded me how anxious it can be.
Event one: a retired couple seek my advice about their claim against a well known company of house-builders. The couple's brand new house, bought for their retirement, turned out to be riddled with defects and shoddy work. Time and again the house-builders returned, after numerous broken promises, to carry out disruptive works only to discover that something more needed to be done. Eventually the couple despaired and consulted a surveyor. He produced a schedule of defects which the solicitors sent with a letter before action calling for a 'without prejudice' meeting. The house-builders attended, inspected the defects and viewed the videos showing two years of extensive remedial works and disruption. They offered some compensation but refused to pay for the couple's surveyor and solicitor, whose involvement was, they said, unnecessary. This argument, despite being singularly unattractive, ignores the fact that the house-builders would have made no offer at all had it not been for professional intervention. Should one advise them to accept the palpably unfair offer or to spend their hard-earned retirement funds on litigation?
Event two: a widow consulted me about the damage to her terraced property from which she and her husband ran their family business until his death recent death. Next door is owned by the local council and has been empty and derelict for years. The scaffolding erected by the council for some long forgotten reason, scared away their customers and as the council's property deteriorated, so damp and rot permeated the family's shop. The area has been the subject of numerous redevelopment plans but instead of doing the obvious thing and buying up the property long ago, the council studiously refuses to accept any responsibility for the family's plight. By pursuing the council to judgment my client can ensure that the council never has to come to a decision about paying out sizeable sums. Instead a judge will order it and they will have no choice. In the meantime she has to commit her husband's life insurance to obtaining justice rather than rebuilding her life.
Event three: my experiences of acting for the penny pinchers, who refuse to deal fairly with wronged individuals, have demonstrated that once the parties reach court, the judge's sympathies will be squarely for the individual and decidedly against large house-building concerns or municipal authorities. Once they find themselves at the wrong end of a judgment they will have to pay out considerably more in compensation, interest and costs than they ever would had they faced up to their responsibility in the first place. In the meantime, however, the individuals, and their advisers, have a worrying time of it.