Last post: advocates think outside the box

A part of Faculty of Advocates history disappeared over the weekend with the rows of advocates’ boxes in Parliament House being emptied, locked and designated henceforth as decorative rather than functional.

For generations each advocate has had his or her own small wooden box with a brass nameplate, providing a low-tech but effective delivery system for solicitors wishing to leave papers for counsel they wish to instruct. From there the papers are collected by the advocate or advocate’s clerk.

Of course, in an age of mobile phones, emails and electronic diaries, and with each stable having its own website, there are several more modern ways to contact an advocate and deliver papers.

Nevertheless there is a sense of loss within the faculty at the decision of the Scottish Courts Service to close the boxes.

Mungo Bovey QC, Keeper of the Library, is among them.

“Like every other member I’ve talked to I regret the decision,” he said. “The boxes are part of the tradition of Parliament House – and, I understand, unique in the world – but they are also convenient. It’s a bit of Scottish history gone. Their appeal was practicality and utility as well as charm.”

Only the boxes of Queen’s Counsel will remain in place in the box corridor. A few more will be placed in the Laigh Hall, directly underneath Parliament Hall.

It was a well-observed tradition that one advocate did not look in another advocate’s box or interfere with someone else’s papers. Some years ago, however, an advocate thought there must have been a breach of this etiquette because his box was always empty. He tried locking it but, sadly, it made no difference to the absence of work.

The Box Corridor has its origins in the system of court cases being conducted in previous centuries by way of written pleadings or documents which were put in front of the judges.

When advocates knew that a hearing was due in court the following day they would “inform” the judge by going round to his house the night before. This was a practice that irked their Lordships, particularly if they were enjoying a convivial evening at home. Or not at home.

To avoid such domestic intrusion the judges allowed a new document – the “information”- to be presented to the court the night before the case.

They also devised a system of locked boxes, each with a slit for the insertion of papers, with each judge having his own key.

The boxes stood from 3pm-7pm so that “informationes may be lett in and cannot be drawen out” giving rise to the suspicion that in those days there was a temptation to look at or steal the other side’s papers.

The advocates’ boxes emulated that innovation by the judges. It is believed the boxes themselves probably belong to the faculty, although each new member of the faculty has had to provide his or her own brass plate to be screwed on to the front.

The grounds given for the change were security and data protection.

As the volume of paperwork generated by even mundane cases has grown the busier advocates could be identified by the height of the pile of ring binders on top of the box rather than inside it.

Bovey added: “It would be ungracious not to acknowledge the new arrangement that has been put in place.

“What was the male gown room in Parliament House has been converted into a mailroom with a pigeonhole for each advocate, organised by stable and supervised by a member of staff.”