With the current furore over female barristers considering giving up the bar because of the behaviour of some judges, I was thinking back who was the most ‘difficult’ stipe in front of whom I appeared.

Morton landscape

James Morton

Over at South Western, Glenn Craske never offered an easy morning. He believed that living writers should not be cited in an argument. If one did not know the foible, or by mischance broke it, Craske would shout: ‘He’s alive; he’s still alive.’ 

North of the river, the answer was without doubt Michael Johnstone who sat for some time at Clerkenwell and Highbury Corner. He could and did reduce some advocates to tears. And it was generally thought there was certainly no point in a defendant electing summary trial if it were going to end up with Johnstone trying the case. The only fun in appearing in front of him was the schadenfreude of seeing your fellow advocates suffer before it was your turn. 

It was Johnstone who, one Boxing Day at Old Street, dismissed all the charges before him because the CPS had not been told the court was sitting that day and a representative did not appear. 

Perhaps the case which brought him temporary fame came in 1996 when he was asked to decide the fate of a man who had played the bagpipes on Hampstead Heath for something like 18 years. The City of London Corporation wished to restrict him to three days a week at specific times and, when he refused, he was brought to court under a bylaw which forbade playing musical instruments on the heath without permission.

The defence argued the case was wrongly brought and that bagpipes were not a musical instrument but an instrument of war. The Hampstead piper should thus have been charged with an offensive weapon. Johnstone pointed out that this would have left him open to a prison sentence.

Johnstone said many people thought bagpipes were not a musical instrument but that it did not matter. The man was fined and told to resubmit an application before he played again.


James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor