On sparrows

My workplace was already dealing with a public health crisis when Covid-19 began its acceleration here.  A sparrow had made its way into our fancy glass atrium and had taken up residence.  It’s been there four weeks now, living off crumbs of Huntley and Palmers set out as bait to lure it towards a cage it otherwise ignores.  Its leisure activities mainly seem to involve shitting over our furniture.  Most recently, some enterprising solicitor propped up an upside down cardboard file box on a binding comb.  String tied to the binding comb could be yanked to make the box pounce.  A sort of Wile E Coyote solution designed by desperate lawyers.

Now, almost all of us have been sent to work from home.  I assume the sparrow is still there.  Defiant.

Me, I’m following orders.  It seems the only responsible thing to do.  Obtaining permission to return to the office for a day now requires an originating application and supporting affidavit.  Presumably when we reach category 4 shortly it will be all but impossible.

In a time of a large scale public health crisis, the market for nonsense should be small.  I am loathe to contribute to the supply.  Somehow, tweeting that barristers wigs are to be lengthened to mid-arm (coiffing to your elbow) doesn’t seem like the order of the day.  (Besides, all the easy jokes have been taken.  Clean hands; we get it.  Call me when there is something original like the QC seating priority being reversed so that QCs are entitled to sit on the seat *furthest* from the bench, or all opt-out representative actions are changed back to opt-in.)

I was this close – *this* *close* – to writing a whole thing about the Chief Justice calling on all practitioners to stop citing cases that are over 70 years old.  But with the announcements today it all seems pretty naive.

It would be nice if we could carry on as normal.  I would like it even more if we could  romanticise the practise of law to a level on par with nursing or supermarket shelf stacking.  (Alas, I gave up my early career as checkout chap at Mosgiel New World to practice law; a choice which I’ve long suspected and now confirmed to be a backwards step.)  Law will be essential to achieve a lot of good in a difficult time.  The Chief Justice is right that the courts must remain open even at category 4.  But for each of us, the ability to do some good, even a lot of good, can’t be mistaken for the idea that everything we do is good.  The situation calls for an acceptance of limits and to follow public health advice, which for now is to limit social contact as much as possible.

Getting admitted as a barrister and solicitor of the High Court of New Zealand means that, when faced with crisis, we all have to leap to our feet valiantly and proclaim things like “Even in times of war, the laws do not fall silent”.  Well, it turns out that in a pandemic, the laws do not fall silent but they do have a scratchy throat.  We can all do our jobs while taking sensible precautions.

That will be tough on all the egotists among us, me included.  It will be tough on counsel having to appear by telephone, who lose the ability to share that very special locked-eyes “I’ve no fucking idea what he’s on about either” look with the judge while opposing counsel is speaking.  It will be tough on judges who have to listen to my oral submissions delivered entirely in “telephone voice”.  It will be tough on all of us forced to confront the idea that the judgment we’re reading may have been written by a judge at home and not wearing pants.

It’s not my place to say anything profound.  And I don’t think anyone should necessarily have a sense of humour about something that is all but certain to lead to deaths.  It’s also not my place to deliver public health advice.  But it occurs to me we have two options.  We can be sensible lawyers who follow official advice while upholding our oaths, or we can be sparrows shitting over everything.

See you all when this is over.

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