I have been asked by Andrew Keogh (aka CrimeLineLaw) to explain what I meant in yesterday’s blog when I wrote:
“Because I was a member of the South-Eastern Circuit, I was able to appear at Quarter Sessions in Kent, Surrey and Sussex without having to pay the “place-money” required of a member of a different circuit.”
Readers may remember that I referred to the origins of the circuit system in my earlier blog “A Judge’s Marshal in the early 1960s” where I wrote:
“From the early Middle Ages onwards the king’s justices used to travel out from London from time to time to try the most serious criminal cases at local assize courts…. A judge’s travels were organised within what came to be called “circuits”. In 1963 there were seven circuits: Northern, North-East, Midland, Oxford, Welsh, Western and South-Eastern. The Central Criminal Court (the Old Bailey) performed the same function as an assize court for Middlesex and parts of neighbouring counties.”
Less serious criminal cases were tried at the Courts of Quarter Sessions. Every county and all the Cities and many but not all the Boroughs had their own Court. The judge of the City or Borough Quarter Sessions was known as the Recorder (usually but not necessarily a QC) – Charles Doughty QC MP, whom I mentioned in my last blog, was the Recorder of Brighton. The Chairman of the County Quarter Sessions was usually a practising barrister. Sir Edward Gardner QC MP, whom I also mentioned, was deputy chairman of Kent Quarter Sessions.
Sometimes, a little before my time, one might find a very distinguished judge, like Lord Denning (in Hampshire), or Lord Devlin (in Wiltshire). sitting in August as deputy chairman of the local county quarter sessions. Lord Morris of Borth-y- Gest, another law lord, had been chairman of Caernarvonshire Quarter Sessions for 25 years and continued to sit there occasionally in August as a deputy chairman.
Against this background, the barristers within a circuit established a protective wall within which they enjoyed a virtually complete monopoly of rights of audience at the Assizes and Quarter Sessions within their circuit area. If a solicitor wished to instruct member of the Bar to appear “off circuit”, his client would be charged a special extra fee, payable to the circuit, of 50 guineas (100 guineas for a silk). He would also be obliged to instruct another barrister who was a member of the relevant circuit at a moderate fee on what was known as a “kite” brief. This is what was meant when the great jury advocates, like Edward Marshall Hall KC or Norman Birkett KC, were said to have gone “special” when they appeared for the defence on a circuit other than their own.
This tradition was already crumbling when I started to practise at the Bar. A less expensive tradition, which is the one I was referring to, stemmed originally from a habit by which a local Bar Mess in a particular circuit town might require payment of “place money” of 5 guineas from any outsider who appeared in a case on its home turf.
This practice survived for a few years after the abolition of “going special”. I never appeared at Quarter Sessions off-circuit, but I see that I paid place money of 5 guineas when I was instructed to appear at the Lincoln Crown Court on 3rd May 1973 before a High Court Judge in a civil matter. In due course that practice, which was impossible to police once the Courts Act 1971 had come into force, dwindled away, too.
An excellent description of the circuit system is to be found in a book “Death of a Circuit”, written by my great friend Graeme Williams QC, which was published by Wildys in 2006. Its sub-title “Being Some Account of The Oxford Circuit and How it was Abolished” describes accurately what the book is all about. At p 78 he writes:
“A ‘trespassing’ barrister was supposed to pay ‘place money’ of £5 (or guineas per case, or per day, I forget which) to the Circuit he was trespassing on. For a while some Circuits, including the Oxford, found themselves with an embarrassment of riches, which they spent by making grants to pupils of circuiteers. By the time the Courts Act was in force in 1972 these rules had withered away from non-observance to non-existence”.
Sadly, it is now too late for me to retrieve the 5 guineas to the new Midland & Oxford Circuit I paid in accordance with a non-existent rule…
The book is also noteworthy for a Foreword written by Lord Woolf, himself a member of the old Oxford Circuit. In it he writes:
“From this book the reader will be reminded, or learn, of a more leisurely, less commercial world. A world which was gentlemanly, a world where earnings did not play quite the dominant role they do today. It was a world in which it was possible to practise a profession adopting only the highest standards. They are standards which of necessity had to change to accommodate the harsher, highly competitive contemporary life of the barrister today. Yet it is a world which it would be unwise to regard as being of only historical interest. It was a world where integrity was crucial, and the integrity of the barrister is still crucial today.”
Amen to all that.
 There were no such restrictions in the county courts, or in courts in London.
 Graeme died two years ago after having suffered for 14 years from one very serious illness after another. He was a delightful opponent in court, and his book is a delight to read.