Over lunch at Inner Temple Hall, the veteran silk who defended the Krays and is the former Tory politician responsible for the National Lottery discusses the demise of the criminal bar and why he voted yes to strike action
Sir Ivan Lawrence’s chambers at 5 Pump Court are in a quiet, shady corner at the heart of London’s Temple. The waiting room is homey with canvass prints on the wall and two bright red sofas. A hardback copy of his memoirs, ‘My Life of Crime’, sits alongside magazines and newspapers on a coffee table.
The dapper 78-year-old is wearing a striped shirt with a starched white collar, paired with a flowery tie in shades of purple and yellow, the button of the order of chivalry of knight’s bachelor in his lapel and gold House of Commons cufflinks.
He greets me warmly and sinks into the opposite sofa, lamenting the state of the criminal bar, which only days before had voted to support action being taken by their solicitor colleagues over fee cuts and proposed contracting arrangements.
Lawrence, whose party battled the miners during their strike against pit closures in the mid-eighties, voted in favour of protest action in the recent Criminal Bar Association ballot. Indeed last year, at a meeting of the Tory Reform Group, he called on barristers to strike over the ‘total madness’ of the government’s legal aid policy.
The £220 million savings the cuts are designed to achieve, he says, are ‘pitiful’ and will only serve to make an already inefficient system worse.
Citing the decline in fee rates, Lawrence notes: ‘When I do a murder or a fraud trial now, my clerks tell me that I get less than half what I was being paid 20 years ago.
‘And there are juniors who have been at the bar for years who are paid £50 a day. How can people work for that and why will people want to come into the profession for that? They simply can’t and won’t do it. The result is that people won’t come to the criminal bar.’
Since taking up his post as Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor after the election, Michael Gove has overtly courted the criminal bar in his speeches and performance before the justice committee, stating that it’s preservation is one of his ‘top priorities’.
Lawrence says he does not know Gove personally, but he credits the former journalist with greater intelligence than his predecessor, Chris Grayling. ‘He can see further ahead politically, and is more forceful and principled. So the bar is in with a better chance.’
But, even with the new, more conciliatory broom, Lawrence does not hold out much hope. ‘The [publicly-funded criminal] bar’s fees are set by civil servants who have an agenda – fusion of the solicitors and barristers professions,’ he explains.
He acknowledges the obvious – there will still be a need for criminal advocates, maintaining there will continue to be both barristers and solicitors doing that work. But, predicts Lawrence, aside from a couple of large sets with senior silks, crime specialist barristers will be working in-house in one-stop-shops rather than independent practice.
He fears that the professions have been heading towards the civil servant’s dream of fusion ever since the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990, which sought to break the monopoly of the bar by giving solicitors rights of audience in the higher courts. And that is the direction in which things will inexorably continue.
At the time that the bill went through Parliament Lawrence was MP for Burton. He spoke against it. Hansard records his warning that it would be ‘the beginning of the end of the independent bar’ and lead to a ‘fused profession’.
To arrest the cuts and contracting reforms, he states: ‘Industrial action is the only thing that the government will listen to. I’ve been saying it for a long time, but people haven’t been listening.’
Bar strikes last year saw off the government’s planned advocacy cuts. Lawrence takes a modicum of modest credit for that change. During the action that saw bewigged, placard-waving barristers chanting outside courts, he attended a reception at Number 10.
Lawrence took the opportunity for a word in the PM’s ear, warning him that the cuts, which would affect around a quarter of a million voters – lawyers and their families – could result in the party losing key support and marginal seats to UKIP.
A few days later, the cuts were cancelled. ‘I like to think I did my bit,’ says Lawrence.
On that note we stroll in the sunshine across the court and under the cloister to Inner Temple and into its wood-panelled dining room, festooned with the crests of benchers gone by.
The high-ceilinged hall with light pouring in through stained glass windows, laid out with rows of long wooden tables, would make any Hogwart’s pupil feel at home.
With charm and exquisite manners, Lawrence guides me in and explains the canteen style – there are stations from which to select starters, salads, mains and pudding and the special today (Friday) is fish and chips.
He has abandoned his usual place at the high table with the masters (of which he is one) to sit with the rank and file and his guest. The hall is surprisingly full and although most of the lunchers are male, there is no air of machismo or exclusivity. The atmosphere is convivial and banter good-hearted but reserved.
We both prefer the chilled sweet potato and cumin soup to the green pea and parsnip alternative, with a generous portion of deliciously greasy croutons. We carry our bowls, bearing the inn’s Pegasus crest, to a table at the side of the hall. It is strewn with flyers – one for a performance in the Inn of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, another for a fundraising concert at the Temple church and the third and most interesting for the ‘Inner temple Hendrick’s Pop-up’ – the ancient Inn has teemed up with gin makers for a mixology master class and cocktail events.
Tucking into the creamy, delicately spiced fare, the only child of working-class Jewish parents explains why he opted for a ‘life of crime’.
‘No other reason than when I was a schoolboy I liked reading about famous trials. When I was in the air force thinking about what to do with my university place, I went to watch a few trials and I thought “I’d like doing that”’.
And the rest, as they say, is history. The grammar-schoolboy studied jurisprudence at Christ Church College, Oxford. He was called to the bar by Inner Temple in 1962 and took part in some of the 20th century’s most infamous murder trials, including those of the Kray twins, serial killer Denis Nilsen and Russell Bishop, wrongly accused of the Babes in the wood murder in 1986.
Having been at the bar for 53 years and taking silk in 1981, he is more qualified than most to profess what makes a good advocate. ‘You have to be able to speak and be understood,’ which he asserts ‘is not really compatible with having too strong a regional accent’. A glass smashing at the next table accompanies what some politically correct types might regard as bit of a clanger.
He continues: ‘You need self confidence and a wish to be independent (a theme he will return to) rather than getting a weekly wage from an employer who tells you what to do all the time.’
In addition, he points to the attraction of working in a world ‘where every day is different and where you’re dealing with people’s lives in difficult situations and, as a defence lawyer, trying to help them’.
With characteristic humility he adds: ‘As time goes on I realise something that I hadn’t done before — it is actually quite a privilege to be invited into somebody’s life with a view to improving their situation.’
He relishes the freedom from the drudgery of a 9 to 5 job that the independent criminal bar brings, but stresses ‘you have to be paid’.
Dispelling the myth of the fat cat barrister that successive government’s have been keen to sell to the media, Lawrence states: ‘Nobody could ever earn a fortune at the criminal bar. A handful of people do or who say they do, but that is only ever for a limited period.’
In more than half a century of practice, he has seen ‘massive changes on every front’. Indeed, he reflects, ‘little is the same’ and reckons that the rest of the lunch hour would be insufficient to cover all the changes.
By way of illustration, he indicates with thumb and index finger that when he came to the bar, the Crown court practitioner’s bible, Archbold was about an inch and a half thick printed on very thick paper and containing a limited amount of law.
Now, he gestures, it is twice as thick, printed on very thin paper and with three supplements each year that double its size.
‘The criminal law is so complicated and has seeped in to every aspect of a person’s life’. Society too has changed, which he says, is reflected in the cases that come before the courts.
‘There were no money laundering cases and few sexual abuse cases – it was simple burglary, rape, a bit of murder, a bit of fraud’.
On the competing rights of the parties involved, he says: ‘The impetus has gone towards the prosecution, but that is not to say it has gone too much that way. The right to silence has been diminished, but to some extent that may have been necessary.’
We break off to go up to the counter to get our main course, but have to wait for a refill of the popular battered fish.
Lawrence excuses himself to catch up with one of his chums. Having selected chips, old-school style cauliflower cheese, a large pickled onion and a healthy dollop of tartar sauce, he returns, stopping on his way to greet fellow diner Rob Rinder.
The barrister and star of ITV’s reality show Judge Rinder was in chambers with Lawrence’s only daughter Rachel, whose death of lung failure due to cystic fibrosis two years ago devastated him and his wife of almost 50 years, Gloria.
Glancing round the room, the inn’s sub-treasurer, Patrick Maddams, is at the other end of our table with a young lady member from Hong Kong who had just finished her PhD. And solicitor-blogger David Allen Greene has slipped in on the next table.
On his return, Lawrence explains apologetically that he needed to arrange the handover of a bottle of the Inn’s finest port to a commercial silk who had won it at an auction in aid of a cystic fibrosis charity. ‘I’ve been carting it around in my car for weeks and it won’t do it any good.’
After a run-down of the bigwigs on the high table, which include the treasurer, Lord Justice Moore-Bicke and reader, Judge Cryan, Lawrence returns to his earlier subject of the future of the profession.
‘I fear the criminal bar will go – there won’t be a criminal bar in the future,’ he predicts with considerable regret.
He won’t forecast how long the death throes will last, but laments: ‘It’s happening and it’s happening to a substantial extent.’
Lawrence paints a picture of an inefficient, bureaucratic criminal justice system, characterised by the falling standards of defence solicitors and the prosecution, and waste. Swinging fee cuts have meant criminal law firms have had to increase their volumes of work to survive.
This has had a knock-on effect on the quality of work, suggests Lawrence. ‘They pile it up and do not do a proper job. They tie papers with rubber bands instead of tape – always an indication of slackness – briefs are not prepared, proofs are not taken and the work that solicitors used to do in advance is being left to the advocate to do in conference with the client’.
Returning to the bar’s independence, Lawrence explains there are two reasons why it is important. ‘You have to be independent of your boss and independent from the judge.’
He moves on to the rasion d’etre of the criminal bar – advocacy. He is not anti-solicitor and naturally relies on them for instructions. But, he is not happy with their encroachment on what used to be the preserve of the bar.
‘We are trained advocates whereas solicitors have to combine it with other things. Advocacy is putting your best points forward persuasively in the shortest available time. It’s an art that has to be learned and practised. Solicitors can’t do it if they are doing other things.’
Recounting the story of a crown court judge, not born when he was called to the bar, and who angrily challenged his line of questioning only to return apologetically after the luncheon adjournment, Lawrence expresses his concerns over the judiciary.
‘There is too much pressure on judges – they don’t know what they’re doing – they have to tick boxes, be on top of the latest changes in the law, control trials, be available…the pressure is great and some who have come from a more 9 to 5 background can struggle.’
He adds in the interest of fairness: ‘Of course everything I say is a generalisation to which there are always exceptions.’
The indefatigable advocate, whose time at the bar was for 23 years coupled with being an MP, remains busy. Among his caseload, he has a couple of murders and cases listed at the Court of Appeal.
Over strawberries and cream, and a glass of cold coffee, I ask if he sees himself retiring? ‘I don’t see why’, he retorts, ‘ unless something intervenes.’
Lawrence claims that he does not really relax. ‘To keep fit I used to play squash, but I have run out of partners – they have all either died, had strokes and got Parkinson’s, he laments, so now he engages in the more solitary pursuit of swimming and ‘tries to play the piano’.
‘I have my fingers in a lot of pies,’ he adds, rattling off numerous societies and organisations he remains actively involved with. He is on the Board of Deputies of British Jews, involved in his local synagogue, lectures at the University of Buckinghamshire (from where he has an honorary doctorate) and BPP Law School, is president of his school old boy’s association, trustee of the Holocaust Education Trust and president of the Spelthorne Conservatives, to name but a few.
On that note our lunch has to end as he is taking a local counsellor and her family around the Temple Church.
We pop briefly back to chambers, where he shows me his narrow room crammed with papers and books. Among the numerous pictures on the wall, is one of him with Margaret Thatcher.
The signed picture of a house painted by Ronnie Kray after his murder convictions, that used to adorn the wall, is no longer there. Lawrence sold it for ‘a fair amount of money’.
But the picture entitled ‘Head of Girl’ drawn by Stephen Ward, osteopath and one of the central figures in the 1960s’ Profumo affair, remains as Lawrence was unable to persuade the National Portrait Gallery to buy it.
On my way out he hands me a paperback copy of his memoirs, with the instruction to come back and get it inscribed once I’ve read it.
Marked by courtesy and good manners rather than political correctness, Lawrence is a gentleman from another age. There are fewer and fewer advocates of his kind or with his tales to tell — and that is a great shame.