Friday, December 08, 2006

A legal anecdote (or three)

The archaic formula "Who, pray, is.....?" is supposed to be much favoured by doddery old British High Court judges - who traditionally affect a magnificent indifference to, nay, a complete ignorance of current affairs, or at least of the reviled 'popular culture'.

There are a number of well-worn anecdotes (forgive me: I used to be a lawyer, once upon a time) on this theme, perhaps the best-known of which is this:

At some point back in the '60s, a witness in court happened to mention The Beatles. The judge rolled his eyes in bafflement. "Who, pray, are the Beatles?"
One of the barristers helpfully explained (while disguising, apologising for his own shameful familiarity with such base matters): "M'Lud, I believe they are a well-known skiffle band."
[In some versions of the story, the barrister's explanatory phrase is "popular beat combo" - but I'm really rather sceptical as to whether 'combination' was ever a common term for 'band'; and I'm damn sure no judge would have allowed the slangy contraction 'combo' to pass in his court.]

In another (more recent) one I like, the exchange supposedly went like this:

A witness had mentioned the legendary Brazilian football player, Pelé; so, the judge, of course, asked....
"And who, pray, is Pelé?"
The barrister responded: "M'Lud, he is widely recognised as the second greatest football player in the history of the game."
The judge rose to the bait: "And who, then, is the greatest football player?"
The barrister (touting a personal preference shared by many British people of a certain generation) boldly replied: "That, M'Lud, would unquestionably be Mr George Best."
[If any of you said 'Maradona' - SHAME on you!]

However, my favourite courtroom anecdote has long been this fine riposte from one of the most celebrated advocates of the turn of the 20th Century, F.E. Smith (who went on to a distinguished political career, and became Lord Birkenhead).

Smith had taken great care in his closing speech to explain the key points of a long and complicated case with great clarity and simplicity - for the benefit of a notoriously dim judge (and there are a lot of those!). However, when he had finished, the judge shook his head in befuddlement, and sighed sadly:
"Alas, Mr Smith, I fear I am still none the wiser."
"Indeed not, M'Lud - but you are at least better informed," came the barbed reply.

You can't often get away with a remark like that in court. Perhaps never. But oh, how we all used to dream of achieving such a moment ourselves!

Yes, even lawyers have dreams....

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