Over steak tartar, grilled fish and a spicy virgin Mary at The Ivy, the criminal barrister who rules over his own tv court and is bezza mates with actor Benedict Cumberbatch, reveals what goes on behind the scenes, recalls the good old days of the bar and discusses his fear for its future.
ITV’s hit reality series, Judge Rinder, stormed the airwaves in August 2014. Presided over by 2 Hare Court’s Robert Rinder, the show airs daily in the week and bagged the top daytime programme accolade at last months Royal Television Society awards, something of which its star is hugely proud.
Rinder got the gig almost by accident. His hobby was script-writing. Coming back down to earth with a bang after working on a meaty case in the Turks and Caicos Islands and finding himself schlepping off to Croydon Crown Court everyday, he pitched a script to Helen Warner, at an ITV production company.
She received it, he recalls, with ‘her undivided indifference,’ but the pair got chatting over email about doing a British version of the US hit court show, Judge Judy.
Warner asked if Rinder would be interested in doing it and they arranged a meeting. ‘She put it on TV and I’m here. It was a series of random events’.
Daily, Rinder metes out his own brand of sassy, camped up, no nonsense justice, and has become the master of the withering put down.
A couple that will be familiar to fans are ‘When my lips are moving, yours aren’t’ and ‘I can smell a lie like a fart in a lift.’
And the classic line delivered to one litigant on a sticky wicket: ‘The problem is, there’s a lovely phrase, which let me tell you, in Darlington they think of nothing else. It’s called caveat emptor.’
Any snooty viewer who dismisses the show as car-crash, Jeremy Kyle-style justice, would be very wrong. It is public legal education at its most successful – going daily into people’s sitting rooms to explain the law in simple, accessible terms and in a manner that the public actually choses to engage with.
‘I know there’s an element of pantomime to an extent, but it wouldn’t have worked if it didn’t have integrity. I wouldn’t have done it if I felt it was going to be the law does jazz hands’.
From start to finish Rinder and the production take the cases ‘absolutely seriously’.
‘We film eight to 10 cases a day. Each is treated as if it were being dealt with in the small claims court’. Some take up to an hour-and-a-half to deal with, though the clip shown has to whittled down to 30 minutes.
Apart from being filmed in a studio building, he says: ‘We do everything to get all the sense of a real court environment, albeit a bit American.’
Rinder presides wearing a barrister’s gown, but no wig. Much to the consternation of English legal system purists, a gavel sits beside him. ‘It is just symbolic; I don’t bang it.’
Before a case gets on the show, much work has gone on behind the scenes. ‘The guys that make the programme are amazing – it’s a creative community of young people, none of whom has a legal background’.
He explains: ‘They have to find the cases (not just from people calling in, but scouring twitter or internet forums like Mumsnet), consider if they are going to be sufficiently interesting, understand the regulatory landscape to know if it’s a case we can do, speak to the parties and persuade them to come to court and then actually get them there’.
For doubters, he insists that all the cases are authentic and the parties are not actors. ‘We are so regulated by Ofcom. The team has to do a shed-load of due-diligence to make sure the cases are real, the parties haven’t already been to court and that people aren’t just trying to get on telly’.
The production team frame the cases alongside the litigants and produce a synopsis for the judge. ‘Very often that will mean full on litigants in persons coming in with truck-loads of papers. The guys have to go through everything and they do it with the parties, sometimes until three, four or five o’clock in the morning’.
Another headache for the producers, he says, it that they cannot be sure how somebody will react to the court environment. ‘Outside, one party might tell the producers that they are super-cross with the litigant on the other side, but when they see each other for the first time coming into court, their whole attitude changes’.
Although Rinder is a criminal barrister, rather than a civil law judge, the law delivered, he insists is ‘100% the real deal’ and the judgments have the same effect as in an arbitration.
While there’s an element of ‘entertainment and oddness’ in some of the cases – for instance, tattooing a penis onto a man’s leg, and the wrong pies being provided for a pie-eating competition – most of them are ‘about fairly mundane issues, which everybody has to deal with – broken contracts, dodgy holidays, lending money, rubbish workmen, cars that have broken down and basic consumer issues’.
There are, he regrets, many cases that he is unable to do. ‘We get a huge number of calls about dodgy mobiles, but surprise, surprise, the companies don’t want to appear on our programme’.
And the cases covered have triggered conversations about the law across social media. ‘They are not ground-breaking principles of international law or things that will get into Treitel [the seminal contract law text], but about things that are important to ordinary people, like the importance of getting contracts in writing and how to read a tenancy agreement’.
While the litigants putting themselves forward for the show are not a result of the legal aid cuts, as most cases would not have attracted public funding, many have been put off going to law because of the perception that it is financially out of reach and too complicated.
Rinder is keen to bust those myths for small civil claims like those on the show. He’d like to see more people going to the small claims court, which he says, has low costs implications and where the process is not complicated to navigate.
Those who appear on the show, he says, come with an idea of the law from what they have seen on television dramas. ‘When they get here, they realise it’s not like that.’
The perception of many that the law is against them, says Rinder, also acts as powerful disincentive. ‘People hear things about the law and take them up as true-isms, which can result in serious things like dads walking away from families’.
The positive reaction to the programme from the bar, he puts down to the fact that he ‘put in his time’ in practice before turning to telly. ‘It’s not like I came from nowhere. I’d done more than a decade of high profile, serious cases and worked with and been lead by the most brilliant people’.
Explaining why his chambers have been so supportive, he says: ‘Where people are good and busy and professionally confident, they tend to be nicer, because they are less insecure’.
That’s not to say that he does not get a good ribbing from some colleagues. ‘David Howker QC can do a full Judge Rinder impression. He can do a whole case; it’s hilarious’.
He is grateful for the supportive reception from the legal press, singling out Times hack, Jonathan Ames, who edits The Brief, and who did the first interview with him after the show’s launch, for website LegalCheek.
‘I’m such a fan of Jonathan Ames. He seems a good egg and his writing is really good and very funny.’
Quality writing, he observes, is a rare thing. And it is something that he is getting to grips with, penning a column for The Sun. He started answering readers’ legal problems, but has branched out to introducing them to a new legal topic each week and trying to make them more ‘sceptical and questioning’ about what they read.
Would the tv judge like to be an actual judge? ‘I don’t know. Ask me in few years. I feel I’d look good in ermine.
And how does he think judges will do when their sentencing remarks are televised? ‘I think they will behave impeccably’.
The north London, Jewish lad is the son of a black taxi driver and a successful businesswoman who bought, and later sold, the London Publishing Corporation.
His parents divorced when he was little so he ended up with two backgrounds. ‘On the one hand I was brought up by my amazing middle class mum and on the other I had real working class roots. I’m incredibly close to both sides of my family’.
After grammar school, he became the first in his family to go to university – Manchester – where he got a double first in history and politics, and where he met his best mate, the actor Benedict Cumberbatch.
‘I loved my university degree. It’s easy when you like it,’ he says, reflecting that he would not have liked the idea of doing a law degree.
‘It’s such a different landscape now the way people come to law. When I went to university it was free, so there is more scope to be freer about your choice of what to study’.
He ‘fell into law, ‘ he says by a ‘series of accidents’ due to the debating he did at uni, winning international competitions.
‘I always say that as a foundation for the bar, debating is way more important than mooting. Everybody who did debating went to the bar, so it was a no-brainer’.
He fancied crime ‘because that was where the advocacy, the talking, the constructing of an argument and being on your hind legs was’ but he only ‘fell in love’ with it after starting pupillage at Desmond de Silva’s 2 Paper Buildings.
‘It was while the party was coming to an end, but it was still sort of in full swing. It was just a great time to be at the bar. People were being properly paid, within reason – it wasn’t as good as in the past, but you could make a living and the work was really interesting’.
The bar is not the same now, with the legal aid cuts and other pressures: ‘Things kind of changed. Instead of discussing law in chambers people were constantly talking about funding’.
He got his break from a Birmingham solicitor, Mohammed Nasser. ‘He noticed me and gave me a brief to try me out. From there I got a series of quite high profile trials, doing back-to-back gang work, murders, then eventually terrorism’.
His first big case was representing one of the four men charged with the 2003 murders of Letisha Shakespeare and Charlene Ellis. It was the first trial in which witnesses were allowed to remain anonymous.
‘It was an amazing situation to be in court, where you could see the witness, but you were barred by a court order from disclosing any of the details to your client – what they looked or sounded like, which could have revealed their identities’.
Having practised for more than a decade, at 2 Hare Court for more than half his career, he observes: ‘Being at the bar completely challenges your judgements about people. It schools you out of making judgements about people and having preconceptions based on things that other people do’.
He is worried about the future of his profession. ‘There always will be an independent criminal bar – my chambers, 6KBW, 3 Raymond Buildings, Hollis Whiteman and several other sets will always be there.
‘But the critical question is whether there will be a publicly funded criminal bar? The answer is that I can’t see it’.
He accepts that the criminal bar cannot be immune from commercial pressures and needs to think creatively about how it operates, but warns that the ‘wholesale assault on legal aid’ and criminal justice funding is having a negative impact across the board, lowering the quality of the defence and prosecution, and reducing diversity.
TV and writing (his book Rinder Rules: Make the Law Work for You! was published in October) mean that he is not currently working in court, though he remains a member of 2 Hare Court.
Will he go back to the bar? ‘Hopefully not full-time. I don’t think lawyers really appreciate just how stress-full the job is.
‘The level at which they’re operating, especially when it comes to the judgements that they’re making, both in terms of the implications for their clients and for them. In a big trial you’re making judgments all the time and the consequences for the individual involved are serious’.
And when you stop, he says, you can lose the intellectual muscle that you build up and the immunity you develop to cope with it all.
This weekend, he swaps his gown for his running shoes and his court for the streets of London. Rinder is running the marathon in aid of Buttle UK — a ‘really cool small charity’ that gives grants support children and families in crisis.
Good luck, Your Honour, and see you in court on Monday.