Sex, lies and pink tape in the age of scandal: “A Higher Duty” by Peter Murphy

Posted on 26th Mar 2013 in Reviews

In an exclusive gentlemen’s club in London, a group of men are discussing the future of their business. They are barristers and the question they must decide is who to keep – and who to keep out – as fellow tenants of their chambers. Two of them have pupils who would like to join, but one of the pupils is a woman, the other is Jewish. Cogent reasons are offered for preventing each of them joining chambers. For one thing, neither would be admitted to this club, where chambers dinners are held. If they cannot fit into the club, how can they fit into chambers?

The Book

A Higher DutyAs you may have guessed, Peter Murphy’s novel A Higher Duty is set in a time when such prejudice was an unthinking, rather than unthinkable, habit of mind. It was a time before the “Establishment” became the name of a comedy club, when that word was used to refer to a national conspiracy of the upper classes – politics, the professions, the services and academe – to retain their unspoken grip on power. It was a time when, in the law, clients got what was good for them (or convenient for their advisers), when deference was assumed and the gap between law and justice wider than it is today.

Into this world come three young hopefuls. Two of them are the pupil barristers referred to above: Harriet Fisk, whose father, a former diplomat, is master of a Cambridge college; and Ben Shroeder, who rejects his Jewish family’s East End business in favour of a career in law. The third, Clive Overton, is an undergraduate at the same Cambridge college, from which he is summarily sent down, as well as being banished from the land by his QC father, after a fatally stupid rugby club dinner stunt. He, too, had been destined for the law. Can his career be salvaged?

Their fates are determined in the course of a story in which their elders and betters manage to demonstrate an impressive array of human weaknesses and hypocrisy. In chambers, a divorce case based on marital cruelty is nearly lost as a result of a reckless sex scandal involving one of the barristers. Another barrister is allowed to sink into debt and lose his livelihood after failing to recover the ground lost during the war, when he went off to fight while others spent the time building up their practices. A QC eagerly accedes to a solicitor’s plan to blackmail the lawyers on the other side, just to win an undeserving case. Meanwhile, the members of chambers in whose hands rest the fates of the hopeful pupils play politics and prejudice at their club, all in the name of upholding their “higher duty” to the integrity of the Bar.

At times the combination of a thrilling and scandalous plot with the clear-eyed dissection of English social mores in the 1950s and 1960s made me feel I was reading a missing volume of Simon Raven’s “Alms of Oblivion” series, or one of the earlier novels of Piers Paul Read.

The book is fairly specific about the dates when things happen: it is in that stuck-up, stifled lull before the storm of the Profumo scandal and the explosion of the Swinging Sixties. Half a century has passed since then. Even so, the scandal which drives the narrative would still be a scandal today, though it might be a personal scandal rather than one that would bring down an entire set of chambers. And the Bar is still regarded by many as the last bastion of white male privilege.

The Bar

So what has changed since then?

The latest annual Bar Barometer, Trends in the Profile of the Bar (General Council of the Bar of England and Wales, November 2012) records that in a total practising profession of 15,581 in 2011, some 35% were women and just over 10% were from a black and minority ethnic (BME) background. Though the vast majority of self-employed barristers still belong to chambers, an interesting recent development, in conjunction with direct access for clients, is a rise in the number of sole practitioners of nearly 40% over the last five years.

Is pupillage easier to get, or harder? Jessica Mann, reviewing A Higher Duty in the Literary Review (February 2013, p 58) wrote:

I have vivid and resentful memories of applying to be taken on as a barrister’s pupil at the time before the equal opportunities legislation of the mid-1970s, when the response could legally and shamelessly be ‘we don’t take women’ (or Jews, or non-white people).”

She acknowledged that things had changed in that respect:

women, Jews, the working classes and other former outsiders are allowed to join in, and to a certain extent they have brought daylight with them.

In some ways, they have also brought competition, because pupillage is no longer a matter of who you know, and far more a matter of what you know. And, perhaps, where you learned it, for the Bar Barometer notes that among those with pupillages, nearly 35% had attended Oxford or Cambridge universities. That’s probably less than it was half a century ago, but it’s still a massive share.

The prizes may be more glittering for the fortunate few, but many are still turned away. According to the Bar Barometer, the majority of those who pass the Bar Course apply for pupillage, yet as against 992 UK nationals called to the Bar in 2011, there were only 446 “first six” (months) pupillages awarded, suggesting that more than half of those called miss out. In that sense, the Bar is still an exclusive preserve.

The Author

After reading the novel, I was curious to know more about the author. It was clear from the sheer authenticity of the detail and the characters’ psychology that he was or had been a barrister. Yet the only Peter Murphy I could find in the current Bar directories was a silk whose details did not match those on the book’s cover. So I assumed he’d now retired. But on contacting him via his publishers, No Exit Press, I found the truth to be far more interesting.

His Honour Judge Peter MurphyHe is in fact His Honour Judge Peter Murphy (left), and normally sits in the Crown Court at Woolwich, though at present he is sitting in Huntingdon and Peterborough. Over a couple of pints in his favourite pub (The Lamb, in Lamb’s Conduit St) he told me of his interesting career. He graduated from Cambridge in the 1960s, and was called to the Bar at Middle Temple towards the end of that decade, so a few years later than the young hopefuls in his novel. Although he witnessed some of the prejudice he describes, it was a period when the Bar was opening up because of the rapid expansion of legal aid work.

After practising at the English Bar for a decade or so, he was lured to the United States, to practice and teach advocacy at South Texas College of Law. Then in the 1990s he became involved, though one of his former students, in the Yugoslavian War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, acting as defence counsel in a number of cases. It was, he says, a strange experience, not least because the tribunal did not really have any established procedure, let alone substantive precedents to guide it. Proceedings were conducted in French and English, which meant that lawyers from former Yugoslavian jurisdictions depended a good deal on foreign advocates, such as Murphy, to help make sense of what was going on. Not
surprisingly, many defendants challenged the jurisdiction of the court. As for the judges, it took a while for some of them to cotton on to common law notions
of adversarial evidence-testing. Though they would not admit as much, Murphy feels he had a hand in showing them how things should be done.

As a judge, he spends much of his time dealing with sexual offences, which I suppose makes a change from war crimes. Meanwhile, the writing continues (he has written a law textbook, Murphy on Evidence, was formerly an editor of Blackstones Criminal Practice, and has also written a political thriller set in the United States, called Removal) and the good news is that he plans a sequel (if not a series) based on the
character of Ben Shroeder, whom he sees as representing the best aspirations of the independent Bar. He is also in a position to participate in some of the
most interesting legal developments and historical events over the years.

I for one cannot wait to read what happens to Ben, and some of the other characters in chambers. And if anyone’s looking for the next big courtroom drama TV series after Silk, look no further. Murphy is your man.