As a coroner struggled to work her new iPad at an inquest for a man who had died in hospital after equipment failures, Stephen Miller QC sniffed an opportunity for a brilliant gag.
The technophobe coroner should “make sure the oxygen switch was switched on”, quipped 1 Crown Office Row’s resident comic genius, who was representing the NHS at the hearing.
The deceased’s grieving family, seated nearby, overheard the remark and asked for an apology. But Miller was so overcome with mirth at his world-class joke that he “laughed in my face and then walked away”, according to the dead man’s son.
But on Tuesday, Miller, who shares a chambers with UK Human Rights Blog editor Adam Wagner, was cleared of engaging in conduct discreditable to a barrister and failing to act courteously by a Bar Standards Board tribunal. Panel chairman Andrew Lydiard QC described Miller’s quip as a “misplaced attempt at a fairly weak witticism”.
He added: “It is quite clear this remark was not trivial, and neither was there anything funny about it. It is precisely that which was hurtful to the Barnes family, and the tribunal understands what happened would, and did, cause upset to them.
‘But that is something he accepts, and he has apologised for it. Mr Miller has conceded that what he said was crass – that is, insensitive.
‘We are entirely satisfied that an unpremeditated slip is what happened here, so even if there was discourtesy it was not serious in the sense required to amount to professional misconduct.”
Lydiard also said that there was insufficient evidence to prove whether or not Mr Barnes was subsequently snubbed by the barrister.
Miller commented: “I accept it was a crass remark to make, which I made without thinking. But it was one of those things that just came out.”