Crime Team - Q & A with David Nathan QC

In: Article Published: Thursday 16 July 2020


During the 1980s, David led in numerous high-profile and serious cases including two of the trials resulting from the Brinks Matt gold bullion robbery (which were at the time the largest of their kind ever in the UK). David also went on to lead in a number of armed robbery cases involving particular members of the Arif family and their associates. He also represented Ronnie O'Sullivan (the father) for murder.

Then in the 1990s, David led at the Central Criminal Court for Kevin Cressey, charged alongside a police officer with drug and corruption offences in what became known as the Panorama Corruption trial, because the client had gone to the BBC with his story. During the course of that decade, however, most of David's leading work involved the very large importation and supply of Class A and B drugs, serious violence, and fraud, for example, Belchamber and others (Southwark Crown Court) was the alcohol diversion fraud which finally exposed the London City Bond as informants and led to a number of successful appeals in other cases.

David's first case in Silk in 2002 was the defence of a survivor of the Paddington Rail crash who had inflicted multiple stab wounds on a complete stranger and was found to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Since then his cases have involved most aspects of serious crime, including gangland and domestic murder, firearms, armed robbery, drug trafficking, counterfeit steroids, serious sexual offences, fraud, revenue offences and money laundering.

1. You were called to the Bar in 1971. What made you decide on a career at Bar? 

I decided to become a barrister because every Sunday, when I was a kid, my parents let me stay up to watch Perry Mason, and my decision was made.

2. Having made that decision, what made you choose Criminal Law?

Perry Mason only ever dealt with criminal cases, and during my 3 years at university, crime was the only subject I both enjoyed and understood.

3. Looking back at pupillage, do you have any stand out memories? 

In the early 1970s, I remember very clearly that pupils were required to pay for the privilege. My pupil master was Junior Treasury Counsel and, in order to maximise his earnings, he had had a number of us sit behind leading counsel in many of his cases. Towards the end of my second 6 months, he took me to lunch and said that he would let me off my 100 guineas and gave me a cheque for £60. I was so surprised that I swallowed a chicken bone and spent the rest of the afternoon in considerable discomfort.

4. Rolling forward to the present day, what would you describe as your specialism/ specialist area? 

My speciality has always been advocacy. In fact, I think that what does it for me is the atmosphere of a courtroom—the cut and thrust of a jury trial, whether it’s shoplifting or murder. I have seen and listened to many fine lawyers in the last 50 years—but very few great advocates—especially when compared to my childhood hero Perry Mason. If I have a talent, I would like to think it is quite simply being a good advocate.

5. What do you enjoy about that type of work? 

I think I have already answered this—but for me the pleasure is not the law but the advocacy.

6. Lockdown has seen a halting of criminal trials, describe your last day in court? 

My last day in Court before lockdown was trying to persuade Edis J, to get a murder trial re-listed after it had been aborted at a very early stage.

7. What do you miss most about it? 

What I miss most is earning a regular living.

8. Describe your last day in virtual court? Do you see a future of ever-increasing virtual hearings? 

On my last day in a virtual court, the Crown offered no evidence in what would otherwise have been my trial in September. I can see many advantages in virtual hearings unless they become an excuse for not paying us properly.

9. What is the biggest challenge about being a Criminal Barrister in 2020? 

The biggest challenge has long been about survival. I suspect that we are one of the few jurisdictions in which independent practitioners are forced to rely entirely on their own profitability. If we don’t work, we don’t eat. It’s that simple. When I started, legal aid fees were terrible. In the late 1970’s they improved dramatically and over the next 20 years, many came to the Criminal Bar who could not otherwise have afforded to do so. And then it all began to change, with cut after cut to our fees, and an increasing reluctance on the part of our overall paymasters to pay us properly for what we do. Whilst it may be arguable that our remuneration may be adequate on a case by case basis, the backlog of cases awaiting trial in the Crown Court before lockdown had already reached 37,000 because of the reluctance of the Court Service to pay for enough judges and recorders to keep the courts running efficiently. This had already led to many members of the Bar being less than fully employed. Covid has simply made it worse, and many sets doing only crime now face extinction. The recent promise by the Government to plough £1.6 billion into our theatres merely highlights their evident contempt for the Criminal Justice System and the Legal Profession. Once again, we are back where I started—very soon you will have been born rich to survive at the Criminal Bar.

10. What pieces of advice would you give pupils and junior members of the Bar? 

I would encourage anyone who has not seen it to watch Professor Irving Younger on YouTube—“The 10 Commandments of Cross-examination.”—

  • Be brief
  • Use simple English
  • Do not keep asking the same question.
  • Whatever the answer, try and give the impression that it is the one that you wanted.
  • Always quit while you’re ahead—

Which is what I now propose to do and thank you for taking the time to read this.