On the eve of judging the Bar’s annual mock trial competition the President of the Queen’s Bench Division — and scourge of the tabloid press — speaks exclusively to Legal Cheek
Not many judges achieve anything resembling wide public notoriety — at least not for positive reasons — but there is at least a vague chance that the competitors at the final of this year’s premier mock trial event will have heard of the man determining the winner.
Sir Brian Leveson might not be exactly a household name, but for a year from November 2011 he was probably the highest profile judge in the land.
The £5.4 million Leveson Inquiry into press ethics gripped elements of the nation with its parade of ageing matinee idols, Fleet Street reptiles and ordinary members of the public that had been on the rough end of phone hacking.
Next weekend, Leveson will lead the judging panel of the Bar National Mock Trial competition, which is run by the Citizenship Foundation. The final this year — held in Edinburgh’s Court of Session — will be conducted using Scottish law principles.
The event is something of a Britain’s Got Talent for the law, with 2,000 state secondary schoolchildren having been whittled down to a select few for the grand finale.
Sir Brian is a big buyer of the concept. A Scouser, his own route to the legal profession started at Liverpool College, before reading law at Merton College, Oxford.
Now the recently appointed President of the Queen’s Bench Division, Sir Brian is no longer a Lord Justice of Appeal, but he still sits regularly on both the criminal and civil appeal benches. So the mock trial finalists can rest assured his judging eye is still sharp.
“The benefits of participating in the mock trial competition for school children who are not yet even studying the law is to my mind very clear,” Sir Brian told Legal Cheek in an exclusive interview in between genning up on the finer points of tartan law.
Indeed, his chat with The Cheek was the first he has given to any media outlet since reporting on the first part of his inquiry in November 2012.
“The development of analytical skill,” Sir Brian continues, “the ability to ask questions, to elicit or to challenge evidence, an ability to argue from facts to conclusions, are tremendously valuable for all to develop, regardless of whether a student ultimately goes into professional advocacy, or even the law.
“Those still at school can obtain great value from developing those skills, whether they are going to study the arts, history, science, anything that requires the asking of questions and analytical skills.”
Another advantage of the competition, according to Sir Brian, is that it gives schoolchildren raised on a diet of television courtroom dramas, a better feel for real judicial processes.
“I’m not criticising dramatic presentations of trials,” he emphasises. “There are some wonderful examples where great effort has been made at accuracy. But watching on television is very different from going to the Crown Court and seeing it in real life.
“The mock trial exercise is better in replicating real life. But even that is not perfect. These trials will be over in an hour or so and they are deliberately written to provide each side with arguments to deploy. But they have little of the complexity of what happens in court.”
Sir Brian plays with a straight bat regarding controversial legal issues of the day, so Ministry of Justice apparatchiks that have got this far will have nothing to fear from reading further. He steadfastly refuses to comment on the press inquiry or an issue of direct relevance to the legal profession — the proposed quality assurance scheme for advocates.
The judge sat on the judicial review challenge to the plan, ruling the legal profession regulators had cooked up the system lawfully — a decision that is currently being appealed.
But he is willing to advise law students on the core elements of good advocacy. The basic principle to remember, says Sir Brian, is hard work.
“You’ve got to know the brief, and work out what the other person’s brief says, and be prepared to deal with it. There’s no way of hiding if you haven’t done the work.”
It is crucial that advocates have a firm understanding of not just the issues they have to prove, but also the points on the other side that they must undermine.
“What is the weakness of the opposing case and the strength of yours?” he asks rhetorically. “And you have to be able to argue from the facts to the conclusion. But that doesn’t just mean hammering your good points. You’ve got to help the fact-finder deal with your bad points — you’ve got to provide the fact-finder with a reason to explain why the difficulties in your case don’t matter. You have to be able to dissuade the court from accepting what the other side is going to say.”
Sir Brian is also helpfully succinct on the subject of advocacy characteristics that irritate the bench. “Repetition of the blindingly obvious and a lack of preparation,” are two traits guaranteed to put advocates on the fast track to finishing second in his court.
For a someone as adamant as Sir Brian that the modern judiciary gets an unfair rap for being out of touch with modern society, he exhibits a woeful lack of knowledge of contemporary daytime television fads — even those with a core legal profession element.
Joining Sir Brian in Edinburgh for the mock trail finals this weekend will be the soar away star of ITV’s lunchtime slot, Robert Rinder. The 2 Hare Court criminal barrister has become something of a sensation as the UK’s version of America’s Judge Judy — but that’s news to the Queen’s Bench Division chief.
“I don’t get to watch much daytime television,” Sir Brian wryly informs Legal Cheek.
Undoubtedly, Judge Rinder will give him a full briefing on the train journey to the Scottish capital.
Lord Justice Leveson to brush up on Scots law as he heads north with Judge Rinder [Legal Cheek]