Paul Magrath reviews the second volume of Peter Murphy’s entertaining short stories about the Resident Judge of Bermondsey Crown Court
This second volume of short stories about Charlie Walden, the resident judge of Bermondsey Crown Court, confirms his status as one of the enduring characters of legal fiction. But although the tales are told with a comic light touch, there are critical contemporary issues at play – not least the existential threat to justice from the bureaucratic prophets of “efficiency” and “taxpayer value”.
“Saving money for the taxpayer is the Grey Smoothies’ consuming passion; which would be all well and good but for the magical thinking that goes with it, according to which the courts will continue to function just as efficiently, regardless of how much our resources they take away by means of cuts, and regardless of how much they dismantle our proven methods of working.”
We met these “Grey Smoothies” in the first volume, but now they too are back in session: Sir Jeremy Bagnall, urbane but obtuse, with his plans to merge the small Bermondsey court into a larger court centre, and the local ‘cluster manager’, Meredith, who wants judges to lean on defendants and get them to plead early to save the superfluous costs of a trial which, on the basis of the CPS evidence, must surely be a foregone conclusion – except when it turns out not to be, of course.
Murphy does not expressly mention the current HMCTS Reform programme, which is transforming our justice system by closing down courts and replacing them with online processes designed to bypass the use of lawyers, but its spirit is there behind the machinations of his Grey Smoothies. He does mention the drastic cuts to legal aid, which have resulted in many litigants having no choice but to bypass the use of lawyers.
Typically, though, he turns this to comic effect. The opening story of this second collection features a junior member of a notorious family of south London villains who insists on representing himself in court, though he could have had a lawyer.
“The Fogles … have a delusional view of themselves as Bermondsey’s undisputed crime lords, but their main claim to fame within the criminal justice community is their propensity to get nicked and sent down on a regular basis.”
They are, however, quite well informed about the law – or so they think.
“Some families have family bibles. The Fogles have Archbold, and in my day never came to court without it.”
The scion of the Fogles who has been hauled before the law on this occasion is young Lester. He has been charged with stealing a car – about which he is quite indignant, maintaining the police have framed him in order to damage his reputation (only not quite in the way you might think). He wants to defend himself because he thinks he can do a better job than a barrister.
He may well be no worse off than if he had engaged the young woman advocate who, in another court, faces a different (and rather crustier) judge who has decided he “cannot hear her” – in the metaphorical sense of obdurate judicial convention – by reason of the pink hair visible beneath her wig. This holds up the trial and prompts a lively discussion over lunch in the judges’ canteen, usually described by Walden as “an oasis of calm in a desert of chaos”. The old-fashioned judge, Hubert Drake, who would rather be lunching at the Garrick club, is adamant that standards of court dress attire should be maintained. The advocate in question, details of whose complaint emerge in the Daily Mail, is equally adamant that the requirement to wear a wig does not preclude having pink hair underneath it. The tabloid publicity gets the Grey Smoothies in a flap. But thanks to Walden’s diplomacy and tact, a compromise solution is found.
A more extreme sartorial challenge comes in Lester’s case when he objects to a juror appearing in a full face veil or niqab, as well as burqa. This is something on which Murphy himself has ruled in real life, when he was a Crown Court judge, in the case of R v D (R)  EW Misc 13 (CC), so he knows what he’s talking about. (Interestingly, while that ruling considers earlier Canadian authority on the same issue, a subsequent Australian court has recently given a ruling going the other way: see Elzahed v State of New South Wales  NSWCA 103.)
There are plenty of other legal curiosities and procedural problems in the other stories. In one a vicar with a penchant for flagellation appears to be syphoning off parish funds to pay for “penance” sessions with a local dominatrix. In another, seekers after hidden wrecks at sea appear to be helping others get wrecked on forbidden substances instead. A musical copyright claim prompts an adjournment to the parish hall for a mid-trial jazz concert. A “revenge porn” blackmail claim proves more complex than at first appears. Meanwhile the settled routine of the court is challenged by factors as diverse as a buried naval cannon, a visit from a top French judge and, more worryingly, a preposterous but plausible death threat from a Magna-Carta citing member of The Order of Original and Retrograde English Men.
In all these crises, Walden has the advice of his wife, the Reverend Mrs Walden, over dinner in the local Italian or Indian restaurants, and of his fellow judges over their lunchtime retreat from the chaos in court. As with the Grey Smoothies, however, support from the senior judiciary is not always as helpful or welcome. So, it was generous and brave of Lord Judge, former Lord Chief Justice, to write the book’s foreword. As he comments,
“At times there is a sharper tone to the humour … within [which] you can discern some of the frustrations and anxieties of the Judiciary in the Crown and County Courts.”
Indeed you can. But it is humour none the less, and very entertaining.