‘There are moments in court when you wish the ground would swallow you up’

By Mukul Chawla on

9-12 Bell Yard head of chambers Mukul Chawla QC wishes he’d been able to make mistakes in the privacy of an advocacy training session rather than in front of a jury

In September 1984, just as I was approaching the end of my pupillage, I was defending in my second Crown Court trial. Flushed with the unassailable glow of success from an acquittal in my first trial, I felt invincible. And so when I was cross-examining the only real witness in a burglary case (the former girlfriend of the co-defendant who gave evidence that she was present when my client and her then boyfriend were splitting the spoils of the burglary), I felt that I could ask any question with impunity. After some preliminary skirmishing, the detail of which I have now forgotten, I decided that it was time to demonstrate her unreliability because of her irrational hostility to my client…

“You don’t like Mr X do you?” Good question I thought.

“No, I don’t.” Excellent answer. Definitely on a roll, I thought.

“Why not?” Hah, she won’t have any sensible answer to that, I thought.

“Because he’s a criminal. He’s been to prison!” Oh… (there’s an expletive there which common decency prevents me repeating here).

At this point the judge, while smiling kindly at the jury, piped up with “Well, Mr Chawla, you did ask the question so you can’t really complain about the reply.” There are occasionally moments in court when you wish the ground would swallow you up. This was my first but, regrettably, not my last. But it is the one that always haunts me.

I wish I had known then that there was such a thing as advocacy training. In those days, advocacy training existed in the form of an hour in front of a video camera at Bar School. It was generally accepted that you picked up the art of advocacy by reading a book and by the extraordinary process of osmosis of being present when one’s pupil master or others were conducting themselves as advocates. It was only a few years later that it came to this country in any meaningful form through the enthusiasm of those giants of the Bar, Michael Sherrard QC and Michael Hill QC, who both embraced it with the passion of zealots.

They understood that advocacy is as much a performance skill as playing a musical instrument. It requires practice. It requires training to enable you to know what notes to hit and what notes to avoid and why. Nowadays advocacy training is an important and compulsory part of the training provided by the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) and by each of the Inns.

I have been hugely fortunate at different times in my career. I was most fortunate in that, as a junior, I did a great deal of work with my “mentor” and ultimately close friend, the late (and great) Edmund Lawson QC. I was fortunate because he was someone who would analyse and prepare everything and was a master of communication. He became my unofficial advocacy trainer. We would talk through the whys and wherefores of every aspect of a case so that whether he was cross-examining or allowing me to do so, we had explored every conceivable option and embarked upon a strategy which did not allow for contradiction. He took to formal advocacy training like a duck to water and inevitably he persuaded me, some 18 years ago, to become an advocacy trainer myself.

Being an advocacy trainer is one of the most enjoyable and rewarding parts of my “job”, whether I do it at Gray’s Inn, through the Advocacy Training Council or in chambers. To be able to see a tangible difference in the standard of advocacy during the course of a training session is very nearly as good as hearing a jury utter the right word or words at the conclusion of a trial.

I wish I had had the chance to make my mistakes in the privacy of an advocacy training session rather than in front of a judge and jury and when my client’s fate depended on whether I was making mistakes and how big those mistakes were. These days, when I sit as a recorder, I can tell when an advocate has had really good advocacy training and has learned from it and when he or she has not. I can tell whether they have learned that the basic foundation for any advocacy is proper and thorough preparation. I wish I had known that confidence as an advocate comes from being properly prepared and that arrogance is no more than the manifestation of ignorance.

Postscript: For reasons which, 29 years later, I still cannot fathom, the jury acquitted my client in September 1984. I suspect, however, that they took pity on him for having to put up with such an inept and untrained counsel.

Mukul Chawla QC is criminal barrister and head of chambers at 9-12 Bell Yard.