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Less is more: my practical advice after almost forty years of practising

Gabrielle Jan Posner, Barrister and Recorder, Trinity Chambers, Chelmsford, passes on some hard-earned tips.

Gabrielle Jan Posner
, Barrister and Recorder, Trinity Chambers

I started practising as a family barrister in the mid-1980s. My pupil mistress, which was the correct title for the rather formidable lady who took me under her wing, gave me the following advice which has stood me in very good stead over the years:

1. Always wear lipstick (particularly apposite for CVP and MS Teams)

2. Always check out where the loos are as soon as you get to court

3. Always be nice to the court staff, they run the place.

The fourth piece of advice she gave me is now completely redundant:

4. Always carry a stack of 2p and 10p pieces.

This was necessary because in those days the only way to communicate with somebody not present was via a public pay phone. There was one of these in every robing room and in the corner of the foyer of every court building. Mobiles, word processors, personal computers and laptops had yet to be invented. For me, the innovation that revolutionised my life was the fax machine – no more hanging around until after 6.30pm for the courier to arrive with my brief for the following day. Instead at 4-ish it would pop out of this wondrous machine in long streams to be cut into individual pages and bundled up in a red ribbon. After about six months, the print faded away, but who cared about that if you could be home in time for Neighbours instead of long after the rush hour. Of course, faxes got more sophisticated before becoming largely obsolete.

My mother gave me her old typewriter for the odd occasion I needed to type a document urgently and it couldn't wait to go to one of the chambers' typists. Position statements, case summaries and attendance notes from counsel were all unheard of. Chronologies weren't, but I loathed doing them because of the problem of formatting on a typewriter. Every judge had their own clerk who was the person who drew up the order, the lawyers were rarely asked to do it and if they were, a scribbled note on a piece of paper before leaving court was acceptable. This was one of the reasons you needed phone money so you could tell your instructing solicitor what you thought had happened in the case and what needed doing next.

My work /life balance was undoubtedly better in the late 1980s and early 1990s although I am not saying it was necessarily better for the case. I tended to operate in vague ignorance of what was going on, not least because in care cases pre-Children Act, amazingly, statements and reports were not ordered until after the initial stage at which the social worker would have proved the case: similar to fact-finding with little advance information. I remember turning up at Seymour Place Juvenile Court to do a case which my instructing solicitor told me was about incest only to realise as the evidence emerged that it was about truancy.

In these days of mobiles, laptops, computer records, e-mails, text messages, WhatsApp etc etc, I do wonder if we have gone from the sublime to the ridiculous. There appears to be information overload in every case and the prevailing sentiment seems to be 'if in doubt, bung it into the bundle'; indeed, why not rehearse the entire history and cut and paste a treatise on the relevant law into your position statement? Yet as a recorder what I need more than anything to help me with my judgment is an advocates' chronology, and it's rarely there.

We are constantly being urged to apply proportionality, but with every new edict, for example, bundles limited to 250 pages, witness statements limited to six pages, your six best findings of fact, within a few months everything has mushroomed again because with instantaneous communication and e-bundles, it's just so much easier to err on the side of caution. The good old days were quite terrible in some ways, but I am not sure we've got the balance any better now. I don't have any solutions and this is just tinkering around the edges, but if I still took pupils, as well as the first three pieces of advice my pupil mistress gave me, I would add:

1. The clue in position statement is the word "position"

2. Grit your teeth and do a chronology, it will help you focus your preparation and the judge will love you

3. If in doubt leave it out. You can always have a court bundle and a separate bundle with everything in it which you don't give to the judge unless it becomes imperative for him / her to have more documentation

4. Even if you have had to stay up until midnight to finish a document or work on something over the weekend, don't triumphantly press 'send' the minute you've done it; leave it until first thing the following morning

Of course, these days you may well have not left home at all, so you will know where the loo is and there's no pressure to get back before the rush hour, but if you can manage to switch off your computer before Pointless and resist the temptation to switch it on again mid-evening to check if anything has come in, you will be doing yourself a big favour. And, as I said, if you confine sending things until the next working day, you will be doing everyone else, including the judge, a big favour too.