Friday, 12 November 2010

Chinese whispers

A couple of years ago I was instructed to defend a Chinese man accused of being the financier of the Snakehead organisation.  I was leading Gudrun Young from my chambers and it was during this case that we met the wonderful Richard Benson QC who was leading for the second Defendant.  During the course of the trial he wrote a poem about me.  I wish I could hand on heart say that I was re - producing it here as an homage to his literary prowess - that he is a gifted poet is doubtless true, but its the content of the poem I have to say I would like to think is timeless!!!

Here it is.....

The Greatest Living Advocate
(A poem by Richard Benson QC) 
D’Souza rose with golden tongue,
This Adonis of the Bar.
On every word the jurors hung,
Of him, the brightest star.
Whence did he come, this God – like boy?
No earthly path he trod;
To hear him speak was utter joy,
Touch’d by the hand of God.

There can be only one, we’re told,
In this our earthly sphere,
Who is so skilled and awesome bold,
We shed a humbling tear.
The Greatest Living Advocate is nigh,
We’re pleased to call him ‘Brother’.
All we can do is heave a sigh
For there’ll never be another.

 R v. Xing Cheng and others
Swansea Crown Court

This case involved Chinese defendants and mostly Chinese witnesses.  They were all from the Fuking Province in China.  As you know, Chinese names and places are often the subject of good natured humour here in the West.  This case was no exception, and I will never forget Mr. Benson asking a witness gravely whether he was Fukinese (but he prounounced it 'Fukin easy') which I thought was Fukin hard to get away with!  We had enormous fun in Swansea doing the case.

Having grown up in Hong Kong where my parents were ex pats, I speak pretty fluent Cantonese and as a result have been instructed in a number of cases involving Chinese defendants.  All have been the source of fond and mirthful memories but none beats the case of Wang Quing Chun who I defended at Knightsbridge Crown Court (as it then was).  When I called the defendant to give evidence I, of course, had to identify him as my first question.  In asking his name I said 'Are you Wang Quing (pronounced phonetically 'King') Chun?'  When he nodded vigorously and confirmed that he was, I said 'I'm very glad to hear it but its your voice I want you to keep up so we can all hear you.....'.  These moments of light relief (no pun intended) in what are otherwise stressful and traumatic trials are helpful not only for the barristers seeking to lighten the mood for a little, but I think are appreciated by jurors who are sometimes exhausted by the effort of having to listen to distressing testimony for extended periods.  Barristers sometimes forget how difficult this can be for jurors unused to dealing with matters that are the daily fare of a criminal practitioner's life.  As an advocate it is a real skill and a matter of sensitive judgement to be able to, appropriately and without affecting the dignity of the court process, break the oppressiveness that accompanies serious criminal allegations to give everybody in the courtroom a momentary and much needed 'time out'.  I am still trying to learn this skill as it is an often forgotten part of the arsenal available to an advocate.  I have seen both jurors and witnesses visibly grateful to the barrister providing a moments respite from the intense and distressing labours required of them.  And as a result jurors in particular, often feel an attraction to the advocate kind enough to provide a moments relief through a shared humorous intimacy.  I have found that this advocacy skill has been the hardest of all to perfect.  This is because it cannot be taught or practiced through a formulaic usage.  On the contrary, it is a matter of judgement and instinct.  And the consequences of getting it wrong can be disasterous for obvious reasons - humour that falls flat or is considered crass and inappropriate could not only fatally prejudice your client but also result in reprimand or worse from the judge.  Perhaps this is why so many barristers shy away from using this important technique in advocacy.

However, one only needs to see the skill utilised effectively to realise quite how powerful and important a part of the art of advocacy the use of humour can be.  For my part, I have never seen an exponent of this skill as masterful and effective as Sir Desmond de Silva QC.  His judgement and timing are simply exquisite and although it appears for all the world that his 'ice breakers' are delivered on the spur of the moment, I suspect they are carefully planned salvos primed and waiting for the right moment to be launched.  For those with the time or the inclination, much can be learned from watching those few confident enough in their judgement to effectively utilise the humorous in the midst of a trial that is anything but.

It is thus that many a true word can be said in jest.