In the Media

When efficiency adds up to proficiency

PUBLISHED January 5, 2007

Trial by television was back in the news this week when the new chairman of the Bar told the Today programme that journalists covering cases like the recent murders of five women in Ipswich should exercise "some kind of restraint" when writing about suspects.

But Geoffrey Vos, QC, is much more interested in trial by telephone. This is just one of the ways in which he thinks that courts could be made more efficient, providing the quality service that is to be the main theme of his year in office.

Of course, Mr Vos is not suggesting that criminal trials themselves could take place on the phone. But there are still too many "mentions" in the criminal courts ? brief hearings merely to confirm that a case is ready for trial or to agree an adjournment.

"It's astonishing to me that two barristers and a judge can't get on the telephone to resolve a simple issue rather than everybody trotting out to Hemel Hempstead or Chester or wherever to have a hearing," he tells me.

Instead, the judge should set up a conference call with the lawyers. Mr Vos accepts that it might be difficult to ensure that the defendant can listen in, especially if he is in custody. But defendants in high-security cases already appear for preliminary hearings by video-link, and a telephone call would be much easier to arrange.

advertisementLawyers and the courts are already resolving more trial management issues by email and telephone. But Mr Vos believes that trials themselves could be made more efficient by modernising court procedures.

He says that the Government, which pays for most of the work done in the criminal courts as well as a substantial amount of civil work, is entitled to demand that lawyers look for cost-effective procedures.

"When you had very few trials, things were different," he says. "A murder trial was a rare thing, and was staged a little bit like a play."

With a much higher volume of crime and several terrorist trials imminent, he believes a new approach is needed.

It is far from common for a leading Chancery Silk to become chairman of the Bar ? not least because commercial stars have to make a much greater financial sacrifice than others if they devote a year or two to the interests of their fellow barristers. But Mr Vos can draw on his experience of huge financial disputes in suggesting ways that trials can be cut down to size.

At the heart of these is an agreed and realistic timetable for witnesses and speeches. "If that happens, my experience is that in 95 per cent of cases the case goes shorter than the timetable," he says. "If the advocates know in advance how long they are going to be permitted to speak for, they will normally cover all the topics within that time ? emergencies excepted."

Criminal trials may be less predictable than civil claims, but the same principles can be applied. Ultimately, he says, advocacy must be of the highest quality.

As someone who occasionally has to endure one particular high-profile but poor-quality advocate myself, I sympathise. But what does good advocacy involve? It is not just being an expert in the area of law, though that is clearly important.

It is more than just being skilled at cross-examination ? not asking the "question too far" that wrecks your client's case. Mr Vos is making a broader point about the way in which an advocate conducts a case.

Take the example of the opening speech ? either to the jury, in a criminal case, or to the judge. "You can either do it in a rambling, unstructured way that's impossible to understand, or you can identify a way of explaining it to somebody who is less well-informed than you are by using your legal knowledge, your intellect and your ability to explain an issue clearly," he says.

"That is a great skill, believe me. If you are telling a story about a series of events ? it may be a contractual dispute or a burglary or a murder ? you can either tell it in a way that is completely clear, leaving the listener thinking it is obvious what has happened, or you can tell it in such a way that the listener does not know what issues they have to decide.

"If you do it in the former way, you leave the decision-maker with a far easier and quicker task, and the case is likely to be far more justly resolved."

Fine, but how do you do it?

"Having been doing this for many years, my experience leads me to believe this is quite simple," he says with a wry smile. "You normally start at the beginning, go through to the middle and end at the end."

More helpfully, he explains that the biggest skill is knowing what to leave out. "You need to identify the real issues. What bad advocates do ? and one sees this occasionally, particularly sitting as a deputy judge ? is to allow themselves to go down by-ways. For example, they allow their clients to say, 'The most important thing in this case is x'."

Generally, he explains, the client is motivated by some completely extraneous reason, such as a dislike of the person involved. "But the advocate needs to bring independent judgment to the presentation of the facts and the law."

The new chairman's demand for high standards ? and similar remarks in November by Ruth Evans, who heads the Bar's new independent regulator ? will make uncomfortable reading for those barristers who simply wish that the Bar Council would go away and let them get on with the job their clients pay them to do.

But those days are gone. The public are entitled to have confidence in the way barristers are regulated, Mr Vos says. And barristers "simply cannot survive as a profession" unless the Bar Council takes the lead in driving up quality.

This affects the Bar's claim for legal aid fees ? "because you have no right to claim proper remuneration for publicly-funded work unless you can demonstrate that you are providing the highest quality service".

It also affects recruitment to the profession ? "because the purpose of ensuring access to the profession for people of all backgrounds is to ensure that you get the highest quality applicants into the profession".

And it affects the conduct of cases themselves, with quality advocacy leading to more efficient trials.

Can Mr Vos deliver? He makes it all sound so easy. But he is, of course, a very good advocate.