Interview with Bruce Reid

PUBLISHED July 5, 2012

Q: What is your career history?

A: Though from Scots ancestry, I?m from the south coast. I went to Bristol University and qualified at a firm in Tooting. Then I moved to Camberwell and became senior partner of the firm I worked for when I was 28. I wasn?t exactly cut out for the administration of a partnership: it was successful but the strain was beginning to tell and I could see the future might be my getting stressed out with a heart attack; so, aged 34, I sold up the practice and went travelling for six months, having fallen in love before I left ? which meant that I came back. I?ve been with my wife ever since.

I had not planned to renew my practising certificate because, whatever it was I was going to do, it wasn?t going to be law. But then somebody rang up and asked if I would do a trial at Bow Street and the phone?s been ringing ever since. I?ve now done something like 30 years of a freelance job that?s always going to end in six months? time.

Q: What is your current practice?

A: I?m now a consultant with Steel and Shamash; but I work as a freelance at Camberwell Green five days a week. I?m an agent for most of the criminal practices in south London and for some north of the river. I?ve a reputation for being quick and working with minimal instructions: most of the time I just know the client?s name and the fact that they are in custody ? though you trust firms to tell you, for example, that someone is insane or that they?ve got a very domineering mother.

Q: What have you been doing today?

A: I get into the court at 8.45 because, if you don?t have an early start, it all comes together at once when they all turn up at ten o?clock and demand attention. Today, one of the duty solicitors came late and I was asked to deal with three clients for the court. I had four clients of my own by that point. I had none of these before I started. Your day is not predictable. You can be kicking your heels or ? well, I describe it as a cross between stand-up comedy and air traffic control.

It?s not unusual for old clients just to turn up at court and hope to find me. Today, I had an old client on a new shoplifting. I had a 13-year-old on a robbery charge and a drunken shoplifter with alcohol problems she wouldn?t address. And then there was a riot burglar where there?s two inches of paper in the case. This was a not-guilty plea ready for committal and I couldn?t see there was a case to answer so I adjourned that for an "old-style?.

That?s an example of having to read a lot of material very quickly, trying to sort out what is relevant and you?re lucky if you?ve got 20 minutes to do it in. There were also a couple of failing to stops on the duty pick-up.

That?s a fairly typical day.

Q: Do you ever do trials?

A: No longer: they are simply not economic. I have got higher rights and I did use them in 1996 for about two

years. But it was a choice: should I work 16 hour days and not see my wife? Or should I do something which I could pick up and put down? I made a deliberate choice.

Q: What has been the effect on you and your work of the financial cuts made over the last several years?

A: The cuts to legal aid mean that the quality of the instructions, through no fault of my professional clients, isn?t as good as it was five years ago. It?s still done competently but they cannot afford the extra mile. We are all being de-skilled.

The quality of pre-sentence reports, compared with the old regime, is so low. It?s all box ticking, They?ve got rid of a whole set of probation officers who were skilled professionals.

All this is cushioned by the fact that sentencing is now formulaic and sentences are fixed low. It?s like an A&E department: many people get seen, not many people die but it?s not the service which the nursing staff or doctors would like to provide.

Q: Is there a future for practitioners like you?

A: I don?t see one. I actively discourage young people from doing this job. The government doesn?t have a long-term plan for it. Texas without the lethal injections ? that?s what they?re planning. One DJ ? not local ? said to me that they took the appointment because they didn?t want to be the browbeaten lawyer in the corner having five minutes with the defendant before he gets two years.

I?m 59 going on 60 and I can wind down ? probably coinciding with the arrival of best value tendering.

The only firms who will win on BVT are the ones who will pay lip service to a proper defence set-up.

You can always get someone to do what I do more cheaply. What?s worrying is that it takes five years of experience to be a decent magistrates? court advocate.

Q: What do you think are the effects of attempts to speed up summary justice?

A: What worries me most is that there?s a rule now that a plea should be taken from a defendant notwithstanding that they haven?t had disclosure and notwithstanding the fact they haven?t had legal advice. As far as I?m concerned, that belongs in Soviet Russia. I?m surprised that no one has taken it up as a human rights point: Bindmans, your country needs you!

People are being rushed into hasty decisions. There?s the air of "We must get through this!? And that?s not an approach with which you can deal with justice. It?s supposed to take time. It?s supposed to be expensive. I don?t mean it should take as long as you like. But we?re being given a framework and told, "It will fit into this!?

What?s alarming is that civil servants are controlling the administration of justice: they are calling the shots and saying how we will do it.

Q: What is the effect of means testing?

A: The self-employed aren?t represented, despite the fact that most of them are well within the limit. Take the Polish labourer, who goes out, gets drunk and gets into a fight with the police. He has limited English and can?t possibly represent himself. He does casual work and so he is not going to get represented. Not only may he be wrongly convicted but he may get an inappropriate or too severe a sentence. Now, the lower standard fee is between £221 and £272.

Consider how much it costs to keep somebody in custody for a day or to implement an unpaid work order. But that?s from a different budget, mate.

There?s no joined-up thinking.

Q: Will the courts manage to go paperless?

A: I?ve used a laptop in court for close on 20 years. I?m not a tekkie but I don?t have any problem with working with a computerised system. But how they plan to implement it without having a wireless point in court is beyond me.

On a second bail application, I?m going to go into the CPS office and say, "Hello, I?m looking after Mr Smith. Can you tell me what the convictions are and what the case is about?? She will say, "The file was sent electronically to X and Co.? I?ll say, "Well, X and Co aren?t acting any more. Can you send it all to my email address?? Then we have to assume that she can do so, that she gets the address right and that I am able to download it. Wouldn?t it be quicker to pick up a piece of paper and give it to me?

Q: Will we see more use of the virtual court?

A: The long-term plan for the MoJ is a phone bank somewhere in the third world with lawyers being beamed into Camberwell Green. And it won?t work because ALS won?t get the interpreting right.

I don?t have any problem in principle because if a CEO in Frankfurt can negotiate on a live link with a CEO in Tokyo with their assembled staff crunching the numbers, there?s no reason why you can?t have Bruce Reid use the same technology to mitigate. The problem is that the system the MoJ is devising minimises communication. You want to come up to a prosecutor and say, "How about a ple
a to common assault?? But you can?t because your prosecutor is on the other end of a live link and you won?t see her till the proceedings start.

Q: Describe the effect of the reorganisation of interpreter services on your work

A: If they turn up at all, they?re often not particularly good. Again, if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. We had a whole bank of interpreters who used to be clued up, not only with languages, but also as to cultural issues.

A good court interpreter is an automaton: they will interpret every phrase. I?ve got very rusty Spanish and even worse French and I am beginning to understand Polish and Romanian phrases in a courtroom context. I?ve been able to hear things that are not being accurately translated. Under the old system, that didn?t happen.

Q: What do you do when you are not working?

A: I take two and a half months a year off. If you work at this stress level, you can either take up meditation ? which I?ve tried and go back to every so often but not as regularly as I should do ? or stay out late and drink too much ? or you simply go on holiday. So I go to Nepal for two or three weeks in the winter to go trekking. And I go to Ladakh in northern India in the summer for about a month. A trek lasts about 14 days during which there is no phone, email or fax.

My wife came with me once and said it was lovely and she wouldn?t do it again. She kicks her shoes off, has the girls round, puts the cat on the bed, turns on a dull movie and says that she doesn?t have to worry about him indoors coming home to interrupt.

We don?t have children, from deliberate choice. This is sublimated into my goddaughter ? who is Tibetan ? and three cats. My wife runs her own small accountancy practice.

I have a huge music collection, ranging from death metal to play while I?m running to flamenco for the bath. Also I am an enthusiastic cook; my wife is a vegetarian ? but I cook fish surreptitiously.