Last week, the Duchess of Cornwall Camilla Parker-Bowles became an honorary barrister (British for trial lawyer). Upon receiving the award in a ceremony at Gray’s Inn — one of the quasi-law schools (known collectively as the Inns of Court) which help train up barristers — the Mon Fertile Finishing School alumnus said: “I think it’s very important to keep everything sort of ticking.”
The Duchess follows in the footsteps of her husband, Prince Charles, and her step son, William Saviour of the Falkland Islands, in attaining elite legal status. Charles was called to the Bar, also at Gray’s Inn, in 1975, while William was made an honorary barrister by another Inn of Court, Middle Temple, in 2009. Guided by Prince Harry’s on-off girlfriend Chelsy Davy — a real lawyer at Allen & Overy –- the group are expected to team up to form Windsors LLP.
Ha! Tricked you foolish Americans! Happily for the Rule of Law, convention dictates that none of the trio will actually practise. Although I reckon that their connections could see them overcome detail like that. William has, after all, been on the record hilariously quipping that he may take advantage of his barrister title to deal with “the odd speeding ticket.”
In general, us Brits get a kick out of conferring the status of lawyer on random royals. “The tradition is that there will always be a Royal Bencher ,” said proud Gray’s Inn treasurer Sir Michael Burton, at the Camilla ceremony on Wednesday as a nation beamed. But a few renegades among us — including a blogging law student who watched Camilla net her honour — find it annoying. The law student wrote on her ‘Little Explorer’ blog:
“After only a few seconds inside of Gray’s Inn Hall and –- probably –- without having ever opened a law book or been to court, [Camilla] was called to the Bar by Gray’s Inn Treasurer Sir Michael Burton. While everyone was clapping and smiling, I honestly was feeling rather irritated.” She then went on to summarise the long and expensive process that an ‘ordinary person’ must undertake in order to become a lawyer in Britain.
The thing is, however much the royals’ privilege grates, deep down we know that they give our otherwise unremarkable, grey island a bit of much-needed stardust. If we’re to survive in a competitive world, we have work our booty, as the Queen herself is fond of saying.
That same pragmatism applies to how we treat the higher eschelons of our commercial court system, at least 60% of which is rented out to rich Russians and East Europeans, according to the Financial Times. White & Case partner John Reynolds says that he “cannot think of a single [peer group] firm which does not have some Russian-related litigation at the moment.”
The big cases are BTA Bank v Ablyazov (former BTA chairman Ablyazov failed to turn up to court last week and is now on the run after being sentenced to 22 months in jail for contempt); Cherney v Deripaska (billion dollar oligarch fraud bust-up) and Berezovsky v Abramovich (big money Russian shares dispute involving Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich).
As the cases rumble through the courts, the London litigation lawyers I spoke with have downplayed the FT’s suggestion that a glut of ex-Soviet disputes is burnishing the reputation of our justice system. A lawyer at a top U.S. firm’s London office told me that the rules governing jurisdiction in English courts are “highly sophisticated”, with many of the Russian cases taking place here because the parties “wouldn’t get a fair trial in Russia.” Jeremy Hopkins, a practice manager at London commercial barristers’ chambers 3 Verulam Buildings adds: “It’s all a bit overhyped in my view. No-one has gone out looking for it. The work just happens to have landed here because of (perceived, at least) lack of impartiality in the Russian Courts, with the U.K. being the obvious port of call.”
However, there’s little doubt that the London courts are far busier than a few years ago, with waiting times for the listing of hearings getting longer. Of course, if we do end up with an unmanageable backlog, there’s always Camilla, Charles and William waiting in the wings.
Alex Aldridge is Above the Law’s U.K. correspondent. He also writes a weekly column for The Guardian and is the Editor of Legal Cheek. Previously Alex was Associate Editor of Legal Week, having begun his career with The Times. Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexAldridgeUK or email him at [email protected].