Within sight of where he used to sleep rough, the convicted fraudster and former football hooligan, who became a criminal silk and hosted a TV series talks about his old chum Michael Gove, the lawyers’ ‘futile’ strike action and ‘venal’ solicitors.
An article about Gary Bell QC in The Spectator, penned by his friend James Dellingpole, described him as the ‘rudest man in Britain’ and ‘exceedingly fat’.
So I was pleasantly surprised by the not-so-fat and hugely courteous gentleman who pitched up for lunch at the Fields Bar and Kitchen in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
His entry in Who’s Who at the start of his autobiography, Animal QC: My Preposterous Life, gives away a little of his background, listing his career as coalminer, lawnmower mechanic, forklift truck driver, fireman, pork pie production line worker and homeless drifter, before stating that he was called to the bar by Inner Temple in 1989.
Before what he describes as a ‘Kafka-esque metamorphosis’, Bell was born in Nottingham in the 1960s and destined to follow his father Terry into a life down the pits.
In a truncated, potted history of his early life (a longer and more entertaining version can be read in the pages of his book), Bell recalls: ‘We lived in a condemned slum in St Ann’s. When they knocked it down, we had to move to a village where there was a new colliery, with lovely housing. We had an indoor loo – it was a massive shock and a lovely pleasure.’
Despite being offered a scholarship to the private Nottingham Boys’ School — which he had to turn down owing to various complicated family reasons — Bell left school at 16 without taking exams.
He proudly highlights an extract from his school PE report — one of his best subjects – which is reproduced in the book: ‘Has succeeded in making a thorough nuisance of himself this year and has made no progress whatever.’
Bell received no career guidance from either his parents or school. ‘Everybody went down the pit, so there was no point dwelling on any other ambitions and aspirations’.
After leaving school, he scuttled through a number of short-lived jobs. ‘I was a coal miner for days; I was really crap at that. I became an apprentice mechanic and got the sack after three days for being really crap. I became a forklift truck driver in a pet food warehouse and I did that for two years. Then I joined the fire brigade, but when I was waiting for my training I got in a bit of bother with the police and ended up getting arrested for fraud’.
Working temporarily for a fruit machine company, the ‘enterprising, but directionless’ Bell sussed that he could earn more money playing the machines using a 10 pence piece attached to a wire.
Although not a hugely serious matter, he received a six-month sentence, suspended for two years after pleading guilty to conspiracy to defraud, the conviction lost him several jobs and could have scuppered his later ambitions for the bar before it had even begun.
Quitting his job at the pork pie factory, Bell bought a tent and headed for Europe in search of ‘fame and fortune’. Finding neither, he eventually returned home and, aged 20, went back onto education – to do his O and A-levels with the aim of becoming a barrister.
Pursuing a career in law was not something to which Bell had given a great deal of thought. ‘I just saw a bloke driving a Jaguar that I liked when I was young. He stopped outside an office that said ‘Solicitors’ and went in. That was a long time before I decided I wanted to be a lawyer. I just thought being a barrister sounded a good thing to be’.
He adds: ‘I still think it sounds good. It’s sometimes not that good, but it still sounds good. It’s a very good career and it’s been very good to me’.
His mother’s reaction to her son’s decision was: ‘A barrister? You? People like us don’t become bloody barristers. Just get yourself a steady job, and then you can settle down and get married.’
Undeterred, the young Bell gained three A-levels – B in history, C in law and C in communication studies, and successfully applied to study law at Bristol University (as with much of his life events, there is a story behind his getting in).
It was during the summer after his first year, that Bell’s metamorphosis took place. He consciously dispensed with his Nottingham accent, with its flat vowels and dropped ‘hs’ and ‘gs’, and swapped his stonewashed Lee Coopers and white socks for the de rigueur Sloane Ranger rig-out.
Challenged to mimic the voice of his past, he makes a fair fist before slipping back into the RP voice he intones today. ‘I ‘ave to fink abou’ every word I say and gerrit right. It’s ‘ard, ‘cos I’ve been not talkin’ like this for now for abou’ twenny-eight years’.
Gaining a 2:2 in law and after a period employed at a US law firm, the would-be advocate attended an interview at the Inner Temple to discuss his application for the bar – necessitated by that criminal conviction.
After being assured that his two referees were aware of the conviction, the panel of benchers welcomed him to the Inn, stating: ‘Everybody is entitled to a second chance.’
During his time at bar school and not for the first or last time, Bell found himself sleeping rough – one spot that he favoured was in Lincoln’s Inn Fields – he would return to it during his pupillage.
At times ‘bloody freezing’, sleeping rough, says Bell stoically, was not ‘the biggest encumbrance’.
‘Other people had absolutely no hope, but I was making my way up in life to become a silk hopefully.’ There was, he says, never a point when he felt he was not going to make it. And that drive and self-belief has not left him.
Having made it to the bar following countless serendipitous events on the way and no little endeavour, he has pursued a successful and eventful career and took silk three years ago.
On the posh-ness scale, he ranks himself ‘bog standard upper middle class’. But he doubts whether someone from his unpromising background could follow in his footsteps today because of the lack of grants and the need to pay tuition fees.
‘Opportunities have gone a great deal because paid pupillages have meant there are far less pupillages around and those that are will go to those who are the “right sort” — people who are connected.
‘It’s very difficult for anybody from my background to come to the bar,’ which, he laments, will result in the profession ‘losing its mavericks’ who tend to come from unorthodox backgrounds.
He continues: ‘The bar’s always been terribly proud that it has a bigger percentage of people from ethnic minority backgrounds than the other professions, but a lot of them are Sri Lankan maharajas and African princes. Show me some working class Indian and West Indian kids – there are some, but very few, and there will be a lot fewer now’.
To improve the situation, he would take a leaf out of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s book and abolish tuition fees completely. ‘It [education] is a right and people should be entitled to education as far as they can go,’ he reasons.
But his advice to aspiring criminal barristers is ‘don’t – because the profession is very difficult and society is very different now.
‘So if you do come into it, don’t have the same expectations and aspirations that I had,’ he cautions.
It was during his Bristol days that Bell got to know his ‘mate’ Michael Gove – now justice secretary and Lord Chancellor. Recognising that he ‘stood as much chance of getting a first as of joining the Chippendales,’ Bell threw himself into debating as a way of demonstrating ‘outstanding ability’.
He often found himself up against Gove on the Oxford University team, and does not recall ever beating him.
On his old pal, Bell states: ‘He’s a very amusing fellow, he’s extremely eccentric – he just is, he’s bonkers, but he’s very clever. He’s quite unguarded for a Tory, but he’s lucky in that he’s a conviction politician so he’s prepared to repeat it anywhere’.
Bell was not surprised that his mate became Lord Chancellor. ‘I was more surprised he didn’t become prime minister,’ he says.
Gove, he says, is ‘pretty approachable’. They see each other ‘pretty often’ and Bell does take the opportunity to talk to him about life at the criminal bar. And he adds, he is sometimes ‘used as a bit of a conduit by the Criminal Bar Association’.
He has faith in his chum. ‘I have to – nobody else is going to help us.’
Gove, he says, ‘gets it’. ‘I think he’ll be very good, within the confines of the budget envelope. I don’t think he’s got any power to go to George Osborne and say “you can’t hit the bar or solicitors anymore; you’re going to have to take it off nurses pay.’
Whether there will still be an independent criminal bar in five to 10 years time, he suggests, depends on his old debating adversary. Naturally, he hopes there will be.
‘I hope under Gove it won’t end. I hope it will strengthen’.
The biggest threat to its existence, he asserts, is not the two-tier system for solicitors’ contracts, but a situation that has existed for some time — the increasing use of solicitor higher court advocates (HCAs), who, he says, are insufficiently qualified and ‘not up to the job’.
‘If I wanted to be a dentist and decided to set up as a dentist tomorrow, I should think that the government would have something to say about it, like “why are you a dentist; you’re not qualified?”’
HCAs, he rates, as ‘rubbish’. ‘I’m sure they’re nice people and are nice to their children. I’m sure they do their best for their clients. Just the same as, if you chose me as your doubles partner in tennis, I’d do my best, but don’t rely on me hitting any top winners.’
He also describes the HCA qualification as rubbish. ‘The higher rights course is just stupid. I know people who’ve conducted major trials who’ve done nothing other than a bail application’.
If you want to be a barrister, he stresses: ‘There’s a way of doing it – which is qualify as a barrister – go to bar school, do your pupillage, get tenancy and make your way up. It’s not easy, but if you’ve got the ability and the drive, you can do it.’
The majority of solicitor HCAs, he suggests, are ‘failed barristers – who either started at the bar, but never got pupillage or tenancy, and for good reason, or who did but then found that they couldn’t make a living because they were useless.
‘So they go and work for these solicitor’s firms as very low paid HCAs and because the solicitors have got the ear of the client they can always persuade the client that this absolutely crap person that they employ is the best person to conduct their case.
‘They are the best person from one perspective — it’ll optimise the earning capacity of the solicitor’s firm. And if that means that the client has to go to prison for a few years, that’s not really a problem for the solicitor – at least they can buy another Aston Martin.’
Bell hopes Gove will ‘do something to stop solicitors making decisions about people’s liberty and the quality of their representation based upon their own financial interest.’
His ire is not directed towards HCAs themselves, but the firms that compel them to do higher court advocacy. ‘It means that venal solicitors will earn a lot more money. It’s greed; it’s avarice, which adds to our public relations disaster –people can see us being venal and that’s a perfect example of it’.
He is pretty confident that his words won’t get him de-briefed by solicitors who instruct him. ‘If there are any solicitors that read this who employ HCAs, they can fuck off anyway, because they’re destroying both professions’.
The strike action, taken by both solicitors and barristers at a time when Gove was engaging with practitioner groups, Bell describes as ‘absolutely useless’ and futile’, particularly as it was during the summer — the quietest time of year for the courts.
Though he did join the picket line. ‘I know I’m from Nottingham and we’re traditionally scabs up there, but I stood firm alongside everybody else’.
But he says: ‘You’re not going to win the hearts of the minds of the public by saying “more money for barristers”. And all the stuff about commitment to justice – it may well be right, but it’s really about a commitment to make sure that barristers and solicitors are paid enough to do their jobs, which you can understand”.
He continues: ‘A few less Burberry handbags would have been good on the marches. I don’t think that the public get it at all, from the barristers’ point of view and I don’t think the Socialist Workers’ Party are going to dust off their banners and start marching down Park Lane saying “more pay for barristers”.
He had harsh words for the ‘venal solicitors’ who took advantage of the situation for their own gain and nicked others’ work. And the Public Defender Service, drafted in to help with case in a couple of areas, he characterises as ‘a fantastic retirement fund for some silks and juniors who can’t make a living at the bar’.
‘They can’t make a living at the bar for the same reason that I can’t make a living as a model – I just don’t get the engagements. I don’t understand why – I think I’d be fantastic’.
HCAs get a tiny bashing in his book too. Elsewhere it provides an entertaining romp through the highs and lows at the bar. From his first appearance before the Hampstead bench, when he was rendered ‘almost dumbstruck’ at the ‘awesome responsibility’ of his task – a mode of trial hearing — up to the point where he received the email telling him that the Queen had approved the Lord Chancellor’s recommendation that he be appointed a QC.
Showing the softer side of the fearless defence advocate, Bell states: ‘I am not ashamed to say that I burst into tears.’ In between, he has also been an award-winning stand-up comic and a TV presenter.
Finishing his diabolo pizza, Bell sums up his ‘preposterous life’ in the words of Mr Crocker Harris, in Terrance Rattigan’s The Browning Version: ‘I got what I deserved. No more, no less.’