The good, the bad and the ugly

THE WS SOCIETY’S DIET OF ADMISSION AND AGM took place on Tuesday, the first time in living memory that the two events have been held together. It was historic also for an address by the Keeper of the Signet, The Right Hon. Lord Mackay of Clashfern KT. An audience of Writers to the Signet and guests assembled for the occasion in the Signet Library to hear the names read out of 20 newly admitted Writers to the Signet taking the special oath de fideli. In his remarks Lord Mackay spoke of the Society’s “extraordinary facility over the centuries to meet new challenges”. He praised the Society for opening up of the Signet Library building to the public and launching the five star cafe restaurant Colonnades. Commenting on the reputation of Writers to the Signet, Lord Mackay said: “I had the good fortune to hold high legal office in England. There were many occasions when Writers to the Signet were referred to as a very special brand of lawyer. I agree”. After his address, the Keeper and guests withdrew and the AGM began. Deputy Keeper Caroline Docherty WS gave her report in which she said it was impossible to overstate the existential challenge to the Society created by the impact of technology on library buildings. She reported that in 2015 the Society had “grasped the nettle” by refashioning how the Signet Library is used, creating a compact, modern legal research centre in the new west library, freeing up the lower library to be transformed to allow the public to enjoy Colonnades alongside lawyers still using it as a place to work. Describing the image the building presents to the outside world as open, inclusive and vibrant, the Deputy Keeper explained that this fits within a wider strategy to refresh “WS” as an original, authentic legal brand expressing values like excellence, integrity, stability, knowledge and style that appeal to the public. Treasurer Roddy Bruce presented the accounts and spoke of his and the office bearers’ confidence that the Society’s strategy is bearing fruit and will give the Society a sustainable long-term future for the Society as one of the country’s most important institutions. The reports, accounts and other formal business were all conducted with unanimous approval before everyone re-joined Lord Mackay and guests for a drink in the lower library salon.

ANYONE LOOKING FOR WALTER on such an occasion would be disappointed as he is even more retiring when the building is full of visitors. He appears to sense the importance of such gatherings, but they seem to bring out his reclusive side and he keeps his own company. It would be fair to say that his humour at this time of year is unsettled by the annual influx of noisy buskers on the Royal Mile. He wears a pained expression. You might say Walter does not do “banter”. He seems grateful for the Society’s personnel insisting upon observance of the bye-law prohibiting busking in Parliament Square during working hours. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe, well, that’s another story. 

WESTMINSTER SELECT COMMITTEE ACTION on Tuesday focused on Sports Direct’s media-shy founder and majority shareholder Mike Ashley who appeared before the BIS Committee following media reports, particularly in The Guardian last year, concerning working practices at the company’s 800,000 square foot warehouse at Shirebrook, Derbyshire. MPs first heard evidence from two trade union officials from Unite. Even the most ardent advocate of free enterprise would surely have to concede that the two officials gave an impressive and impassioned performance, testifying to the balancing role of trade unions in the economy. They made the point that no business is sustainable that depends upon, or turns a blind eye to, degrading and unsavoury work practices. The officials said that the casualisation of workplaces – agency outsourcing, zero-hour contracts and a “workhouse” culture of fear – would continue to spread across industry in Britain unless something was done by MPs in response to high-profile cases. In contrast, three representatives of the two agencies used by Sports Direct came across as vague, evasive and unconvincing. If they were central casting for a modern adaptation of Dickens, Ashley himself was the central character. He gave a dissembling, stream of consciousness, faux-reasonable performance in which he made some startling admissions, all in the style of a genial but scary East Enders Mr Big: “I’m not Father Christmas, I’m not sitting there saying I’m going to make the world wonderful”. Asked if he was a kind person: “I would say I am kind to the right people, to the genuine people. And that’s not just waffly stuff”. On the other hand, he denied knowledge of serious allegations, such as female workers being offered longer hours in return for sexual favours. Ashley has come in for some excoriating comment. Guardian columnist Aditya Chakrabortty wrote: “You’re a greedy, immoral man who has pocketed millions from treating humans like battery hens”. MPs seemed to adopt a “give him enough rope” approach but it was surprising that they let him off for describing himself as the majority shareholder without pressing him on his duties as a director and executive chairman. Corporate governance at Sports Direct has long been a concern in the City and Ashley’s frequent admissions to MPs that he has little control or knowledge of large parts of the company’s business will not have reassured investors. His admission that the company broke the law by paying below the minimum wage may result in a multi-million bill in fines and back-pay. HMRC is on the case. Bizarrely, Sports Direct’s share price was up 6% on the day. 

THE JOINT SELECT COMMITTEES’ BHS INQUIRY was back on Wednesday to hear evidence from BHS’s operational CEO and CFO and from Dominic Chappell, the wheeler-dealer behind Retail Acquisitions, the ramshackle consortium that purchased BHS from Sir Philip Green’s retail empire, Arcadia. If the Sports Direct inquiry puts pile-‘em-high-sell-‘em-cheap “entrepreneurship” on trial, the BHS inquiry is turning into an inquest into the morality of corporate and property deal-making in modern Britain. It was an extraordinary day of testimony, all the more so bearing in mind this is just the warm-up act for Green’s appearance next week. Chappell is a gift in many ways with his initially plausible motor-mouth deal-speak. He was pressed by MPs on his credibility and motives in taking a punt on BHS and its property portfolio despite the losses, under-investment, pension fund deficit and lack of funding other than self-interested support from Green. The BHS CEO described Chappell as a “Premier league liar and pub team retailer” and claimed that at one point Chappell had threatened to kill him if he made any more fuss about dubious cash transfers out of BHS. Chappell himself, to audible gasps, tried to dismiss as an irrelevant sideshow one transfer of funds to meet his father’s personal mortgage. Chappell laid the blame for BHS’s demise at the door of, first, the Pension Regulator for serving a statutory notice which he claimed blighted BHS’s credibility in the market and, secondly, Green for putting BHS into an administration when he allegedly “went insane” on hearing that Chappell was talking to Mike Ashley of Sports Direct about getting involved. Surely at the end of all this Westminster’s will issue a “Best of” DVD box set of the inquiry’s sessions in time for the Christmas market?

FROM THE CREATORS OF HIT AMERICAN LEGAL DRAMA “Damages”, last year’s “Bloodline” was one of Netflix’s most highly acclaimed and successful original series. Now back for a second run of episodes, the saga serves up a storyline at once relatable and mysterious; a dysfunctional family, an apparently idyllic Florida location, an unexplained death. The cast is second-to-none: Sam Shepard and Sissy Spacek as the elder Rayburns, parents to “good” son Detective John Rayburn (Kyle Chandler, already a cult figure for his portrayal of Coach Taylor in fan favourite “Friday Night Lights”), “good” daughter Meg, a successful lawyer (Linda Cardenelli), not-quite-so-good-son Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz) and really-not-good-at-all son Danny (a mesmerising Ben Mendelsohn) whose return to the family fold sparks a tragic turn of events. Much of the drama centres around legal affairs: inheritance and legacy are constant themes, with Meg left to transcribe into legal documents the opaque and problematic question of her father’s will. His wishes regarding the future of the family business, a luxury bespoke hotel and the related tangle of lies, jealousy and secrets are the stuff of a private client lawyer’s nightmares. At the same time, Meg is handling a big property deal with a New York firm, leading her to question whether the sleepy south is really where she wishes to spend the rest of her career. Series 1 and 2 are both available on Netflix now.

— “Writer”

Writer's Week is not intended to represent the views of the WS Society or its members.