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Anya’s Week At Matrix

‘Every barrister wants to have their offices round here’, says Idris as he warmly shows us around the new developments and the grounds. This is Gray’s Inn. This is where you want to be as a lawyer or, rather, where you aspire to end up. Though Idris was referring to the area, he might as well have been speaking of Matrix Chambers itself. Stepping through the glass doors into the welcoming warmth of chambers (a pleasant break from the dreary weather outside), I had little idea of what my week would look like. However, from the moment that you enter Matrix you are immediately made to feel at ease. Having been very kindly welcomed by Lindsay Clarke, from HR, and the wonderful receptionists, my work experience partner and I made our way up to the office. 

Our first induction of the day was with the fees and financing team, who perform the instrumental role of ensuring that all accounts are in order. With Eric Ofori-Darko kindly explaining the different types of legal funding, we quickly began to differentiate between CFAs, private funding, legal aid (which had the potential to go inter-party), pro bono work, and ECFs. As shocking as we found some of the staggering numbers involved in the most high-profile cases, so too was the disparity between private funding and the government-provided legal aid, which has facilitated the protection of some of the most vulnerable individuals and defenseless communities.  

The practice of law, however, is much more than a numbers game. As we familiarized ourselves with the opening statements of the case that we would be watching over the next week, the Horizon IT Inquiry, it was sobering to see how miscarriages of justice, resulting from technical or administrative errors, have such devastating ramifications. The Horizon Post Office IT Inquiry, an independent public statutory inquiry, was established to identify the failings of the Horizon IT system at the Post Office, from the point of its implementation in the early ‘90s to its phasing out in the 2000’s. The inquiry is likely to last for around a year and, therefore, we were to be present for only the earliest stages of the hearing.   

On our second day at chambers we actually had the privilege of shadowing Tim James-Matthews, a barrister at Matrix, at the International Dispute Resolution Center to hear the inquiry in person. As we soon learnt from the expert witness, Legacy Horizon and Horizon Online were rolled out to the Post Office incrementally in order to automate the process of benefits payments and other transactions. Although the use of Horizon was intended to provide a greater degree of efficiency and accountability within post office branches, inadvertent errors in the system led to the unjust prosecutions of over 1500 sub postmasters for fraud. Needless to say, the lives of those who had been publicly branded fraudsters and shamed as benefits stealers by their communities would never return to any semblance of normality, even after the quashing of 39 convictions. 

On Wednesday, our day at the Royal Courts of Justice commenced in the public galleries, where we first observed NXM v St George’s University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. This was a medical negligence case in which the claimant was a 10-year-old girl who had developed cerebral palsy and other debilitating medical conditions as a result of the NHS doctors misidentifying her condition at birth. Although there was admitted negligence on the part of the NHS, as the presiding judge explained, settlements concerning minors require the approval of the courts to ensure that they are in the interests of the claimant. The judge eventually upheld the proposed settlement, and the claimant was awarded £11million in damages and periodical annual payments to cover the costs of her treatment and dedicated care over the course of her lifetime. While there is the widespread perception that judges become jaded and fall out of touch with true victims, especially when claimants are seemingly reduced to the financial damages they are entitled to, it was thoroughly humanizing to hear the hearing conclude with the judge addressing his heartfelt words of encouragement to the teary-eyed mother of the claimant. For me, this moment reinforced the importance of the restitutive function of the legal system in attempting to deliver justice by restoring dignity to victims. Behind the grey Gothic-Revival edifice, vaulted ceilings and the solemnity of the portraits adorning the stone walls, the law is a compassionate organism.  

Having allowed ourselves an unofficial tour of the famous Great Hall and the historic judges’ robing room (that, supposedly, would overflow with so much raucous that Victoria coined it the ‘Bear Garden’), we proceeded to our second case of the day. Upon entering the court room, we were immediately immersed into the stereotypical buzz of the courtroom, surrounded by the milling around of barristers in wigs, men in suits lugging thick binders in suitcases and the hushed murmur of the public gallery. Although the smell of sanitizer still lingers in the courtroom, life has ostensibly returned to the pre-Covid normal. This case was Manchester Ship Canal Company Limited v Secretary Of State For Environment Food and Rural Affairs and concerned the discharge of ‘effluent’ into the canal system. As well as, undoubtedly, being an issue of pressing environmental significance, this was also a matter that I found of particular interest due to my prior research into the protection of specific waterways and rivers, like the Ohio River, against pollutant discharges in the US. The case rested on a re-examination and reinterpretation of the Water Industry Act 1991, which grants specific statutory discharge rights to privatized water companies. This particular case follows a series of related judgements on a long-running dispute between the Manchester Ship Canal Company (MSCC) and United Utilities Water (UU) as well as the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision that UU had a statutory right in principle to discharge water and treated effluent into the Manchester Ship Canal from its pipes and outfalls. With many references being made to Lord Sumption and Lord Nuernberger’s judgements on this earlier case, it was interesting to observe the way that the defense case exploited the definitional distinction between ‘effluent’ and ‘foul water’.  

In the afternoon, we returned to chambers and met Venetia Tate from the marketing team for our induction. It soon became clear how advertising and digital promotion, specifically through the use of multiple platforms and social media, are becoming of paramount importance in an increasingly digitalized world. Through completing our own competitor analysis research, we were afforded an insight into the multifarious approaches to digital recruitment and the importance of grounding a commitment to diversity and equal access of opportunity in accessible website design.  

On Thursday morning we once again returned to The Court of Appeal (at the Royal Courts of Justice), however, this time it was to see several criminal cases. The first case was a sentencing appeal on behalf of an appellant who had been found guilty of aggravated burglary and grievous bodily harm (classed as a 3a case), which involved a prolonged and persistent premeditated assault of revenge in front of a 3-year-old child. The justices ultimately found that the sentence of 6 years, which had already been reduced due to mitigating circumstances, good character, and a 25% credit that was awarded for the appellants guilty plea, was neither wrong in principle nor manifestly excessive (thus the appeal was dismissed). Our second case of the day was also an appeal but, in this instance, the 1992 Sexual Offences Act also applied. The appellant had already received a sentence of 7 years; however, the application was made on the basis of new, potentially exonerating, DNA and mobile phone evidence. The case was particularly troubling and saddening to watch as the young victim, clearly out of concern for the appellant, maintained in her statements maintained that the appellant was a ‘good man’ and that she loves him. It was reassuring to see the way that even in moments of high emotional intensity, the scales of justice remain balanced due to the measured logic of the barristers’ cases. Although the justices found that the new evidence presented did not come close to satisfying Section 23 of the 1968 Criminal Appeal Act and was ‘not fresh at all’, this hearing certainly gave us an appreciation of the way that such sensitive cases often become highly reliant on forensic evidence and expert testimony to obtain rightful convictions. 

After lunch we headed towards the Old Bailey to gain a better insight into criminal law. Although we were expecting the notoriously thorough security and airport-style bag checks, we certainly couldn’t have anticipated the crowds of reporters and journalists swarming around the main entrance. As we were soon to find out, Anne Sacoolas, former US spy and wife of CIA employee Jonathan Sacoolas, had plead guilty to causing the death of Harry Dunn by careless driving in 2019. As Anne Sacoolas had previously exercised her diplomatic immunity, this moment marked a turning point in the transatlantic stand-off between the US and the UK and concluded the three-year campaign for an extradition request. Sacoolas only appeared before the court via the medium of a video link but sentencing will, nevertheless, take place at a later date.  

That afternoon we also had the opportunity to sit in on the trial of Jemma Mitchell, who has been accused of murdering her friend and neighbour Mee Kuen Chong. It was interesting to see the way that the presence of the jury significantly altered the shape of the trial, with barristers actively seeking to clarify more complex aspects of the lay in laymen’s terms. Having just read Eve was Shamed, I also couldn’t help but notice the defendant as she sat stoically and emotionlessly in the docks. Quite aside from the actual verdict, as Helena Kennedy would argue, female defendants are often held to a higher standard, one that is nowhere codified nor enshrined – they are somehow complicit in subconscious biases of the jury.  

On Friday we once again had the opportunity to visit the Old Bailey to hear the concluding remarks in the Mitchell case and, also, to sit in on another hearing. The trial began with a discussion between the barristers and the justices about the admissibility of certain evidence, good character and the possibilities that ought to be presented to the jury – namely, that self-defense and accidental death appeared to be out of the question. It was fascinating to hear the way that inaccurate use of terminology or leading comments made by the barristers based only on circumstantial evidence and inference could mislead the jury. Before lunch we were also able to listen to another murder trial, which involved many more defendants. The circumstances of the case appeared to complicated by one or several conspiracy attempts. Listening to the expert witness summarise his findings about the cell phone data and locations (which might help determine whether all the defendants were actually complicit), the importance of presenting digestible information to the jury became overwhelmingly clear.  

As our time at Matrix was drawing to a close, we had the final treat of meeting the Legal Support Service to discuss further career development opportunities and their work in chambers. It was so helpful to hear from Rebacca Khan and Ross Ludlow about their experiences of legal training and their different paths to the Bar. We were also introduced to resources like Westlaw and the Supreme Court blog, which I, no doubt, will be referring to in my future studies.  

Stepping into a week of work experience at Matrix is unlike anything that I could have ever anticipated, and I am so immensely grateful to the whole team that made this possible. If anything, my week at Matrix certainly dispelled the myth that barristers work alone. Everything from the strategically open-plan office to the collaboration between practice teams proves this. This placement has certainly equipped me with an in-depth understanding of life at the chambers and reinforced my decision to pursue the academic study of law.