You might know him as a forthright TV 'judge', but there's more to Rob Rinder than meets the eye. In an exclusive interview he speaks to us about insane clients, courtroom theatrics and feeling like Miss World.
Since ITV's Judge Rinder first aired, its eponymous star has become known for his flamboyant turn of phrase, biting quips and no-nonsense handling of small-claims quarrels involving everything from flea-ridden dogs to undesirable mobility scooters. But as a practising barrister Rob Rinder has been instructed on more serious fare: crime and fraud cases, murder, money laundering and even government corruption. So we decided to delve a little deeper, and ask Rinder about his career both before and after the bright lights of TV entertainment beckoned.
“I wasn't entirely uncool,” Rinder laughs, describing his days at Manchester University. He coyly reveals he got a double First after studying politics and modern history (“and I don't say that in a self-congratulatory way”). While studying, his success with the university debating team gave him a taste of his future career – “we competed against other universities at the Inns of Court and won tournaments.” Emboldened by his oratory triumphs and the ambitions of his teammates (“most wanted to go to the Bar”), Rinder ended up applying for pupillage.
On pupillage: “It's is the most unusual, demanding and rewarding 12 months you'll ever experience. Sometimes you feel like a Miss World contestant – it's exhausting!”
Those savvy debating skills impressed and Rinder secured pupillage at a criminal set, something that's become harder and harder because of legal aid cuts, he laments: “There's been a squeeze at publicly-funded sets – the number of pupillages has gone down as the cost of going to court has gone up.”
Pupillage itself is hardly an easy ride either. “It's the most unusual, demanding and rewarding 12 months you'll ever experience – you're constantly in a state of emotional flux!” There's the pressure of managing yourself professionally in chambers, getting things right for your supervisor, and then – at the criminal and common law Bar – navigating life on your feet during the second six. “It's exhausting!” Rinder sighs. “But you have to keep smiling through it all. Sometimes you feel like a Miss World contestant – it's exhausting!”
With the pupillage pageant over, Rinder focused on criminal defence cases. The work was fast-paced, and often came with three or four trials a day. “Once I had seven cases on one day at the Magistrates' Court – there are times when you're juggling a lot!”
A few years in, Rinder impressed an “influential solicitor” in Birmingham, who subsequently began to instruct him on cases. One such case concerned the widely reported New Year's Eve shootings of Letisha Shakespeare and Charlene Ellis. “It was an important moment in my career,” he explains. “Once you start doing cases on that level it tends to continue at that standard. I began to work on a whole series of murders and high-value fraud cases after that.”
Some cases are humbling, he says, and challenge preconceptions of events and people. One involved the manslaughter of detainees by British servicemen in Iraq. “During the invasion of Iraq, it was assumed that these young people in the army – some only 17 years old – could just walk into Basra and be met with a white flag. But in fact they had to fight their way in and what they found was appalling. The cases became a matter of understanding what may or may not have been reasonable for them to do in the circumstances, without the proper training required.”
Other cases can have a lingering personal impact, Rinder say. He once represented a defendant who'd been arrested for possession of a firearm, and argued that his client had been put under duress by a gang: “One can never coach a witness, but he gave his evidence compellingly and he was acquitted. He never named the individuals involved, but he did name the gang. Less than 24 hours later I received a call from his mother, who informed me that he'd been shot dead outside his house.”
On crime: “Look at white-collar crime and corruption – these things are really malignant for society.”
Do high-profile cases require a different approach? “Sometimes they have more complex issues and unique sensitivities, but you approach them as you would any other.” Public and media attention has to be sidelined at all costs he insists, despite the pressure of added scrutiny. “The press may have a view about a case, but to me it just has to be another case. I have to engender trust in my client, which can be difficult whether I'm dealing with a petty criminal or a serious offender.”
“You can never be certain of how the evidence will unfold,” says Rinder, bemoaning (with a hint of self-referential amusement) how “things never go according to the script!” Rinder has certainly had a few curveballs thrown at him over the years: “I've been halfway through a submission when a client's suddenly announced a defence of insanity, or I've told the court that my client has no prior convictions – because he said so – and subsequently heard a cough, and been handed a conviction list the size of War and Peace!”
More recently, Rinder's been helping Andrew Mitchell QC (of 33 Chancery Lane) present lectures to “any country which is looking to bring its investigative powers and criminal procedures into the modern age.” Mitchell is currently leading a case against the former government of the Turks and Caicos Islands after it was suspended in 2009 when allegations of corruption surfaced. Rinder took on the role of counsel to the islands' Special Investigation and Prosecution Team, and collaborated with the police in order to build the case.
Fraud and corruption are subjects Rinder is passionate about: “When people talk about crime, the focus is often on violent crime, and of course it's important that is properly dealt with. But look at white-collar crime and corruption – these things are really malignant for society. That's particularly true in developing countries where the apparatus isn't in place to bring cases against the government, where there's no separation between the prosecutor's office and the state – these things can paralyse economies.”
On Judge Rinder: “I wouldn't be a part of it unless it was stringently regulated and had complete integrity.”
With this success, why did Rinder decide to move into the world of daytime TV? “I never applied to be on TV!” he clarifies, then explains further: he'd approached ITV with an idea for a show inspired by seventies courtroom drama, Crown Court (writing TV formats is a hobby of his). The head honchos decided that they wanted a Judge Judy-style show instead, and Rinder's name was top of the list to front it: “And that was that.”
Signing on for the show didn't come without reservations. “I wouldn't be a part of it unless it was stringently regulated and had complete integrity.” Ofcom's “strict regulatory framework” and ITV's “extremely careful and cautious” lawyers eased any apprehensions, he says. Reflecting on the show's impact, Rinder is especially glad that the cases have provoked discussions about “everyday legal issues that people may face” on the Twittersphere and beyond.
“By and large people at the Bar have been really kind,” he confirms, summarising the reaction to Judge Rinder. He reavels that his chambers (2 Hare Court) had some initial concerns about “bringing the profession into disrepute,” but after watching the show, he claims, “they saw that the legal principles are sound.” He underscores the point: “I can live with being criticised personally, but no one has criticised the underlying legal basis from which I arrive at my view on the show.”
We asked a contact with insider knowledge of the court system for their take on Rinder's show. “The content isn't so bad,” they said, “although the tone is not realistic compared to what you would see in a real court.” It's important to note that Rinder's 'court' on the show is not a real one, nor is he acting as a formal arbitrator or mediator. Instead the parties sign an appearance contract agreeing that they accept Rinder's ruling fully and finally. Every decision made is monetary, making for a clear, straightforward resolution – rather different from a normal court where enforcements of rulings (ie legal remedies) matter a lot too.
A further difference is that neither party is represented by a solicitor or barrister and Rinder himself does the questioning. In this respect, notes our courtroom contact, “the programme can help students learn cross-examination.” In addition, “it demonstrates the importance of understanding a case before proceedings start. It's clear that Rinder has done his research and understands each case.” Our source does add: “He sometimes takes the questioning of witnesses to a level I don't think he would be able to get away with in a real courtroom, for example by passing comment on people's personal circumstances.” This pantomime element is, of course, also absent in a courtroom proper.
The TV format does perfectly showcase Rinder's theatrical talents (he's a former member of the National Youth Theatre and starred alongside the likes of Chiwetel Ejiofor), but do actors necessarily make good barristers? He pauses. “I'm always suspicious when people say that. With jury advocacy, there's a danger of losing authenticity if you 'act'. The best barristers are the ones who can be most authentic and persuade the jury through the power of their argument and logical thought.” So a good actor doesn't necessarily make a good barrister.
On money: “If your motivation is money then you'll have to rethink why you want to come to the publicly-funded bar. In fact, you shouldn't even bother in the first place.”
While Rinder points to ongoing problems with gender prejudice at the bar, his own experience has been largely positive. “I'm a white male, and despite being gay I've never met overt prejudice. I have always been completely open with chambers, and I have to say that I think the Bar is a welcoming place for members of the LGBT community.” Rinder credits a host of role models who've helped him along the way, not least Malcolm Bishop QC, “who's very much been a mentor of mine.”
Handling clients who express homophobic views is challenging, but Rinder's taken it in his stride. “The cab rank rule requires me not to have an opinion of my clients – I can't let their politics or prejudices interfere with my handling of the case. I've represented members of the National Front – I'm not here to judge the opinion of oafs.”
For wannabe criminal barristers, Rinder reiterates, “the erosion of the publicly-funded Bar presents enormous challenges. Financially, the early years will be difficult and you may get pretty demoralised. If your motivation is money then you'll have to rethink why you want to come to the publicly-funded Bar. In fact, you shouldn't even bother in the first place.”
But it's not all doom and gloom when it comes to criminal, fraud and regulatory work. “For trial advocacy, there's nothing like it!” Rinder enthuses. “There's no other area where you really get to use your advocacy skills as a mechanism to persuade a jury.” Then there's the unpredictability and dynamism of it all (“running around the country getting to different cases”), as well as the chance to “make a meaningful difference to those least able to advocate for themselves, which is profoundly rewarding.” What more could you want?
Rob Rinder was speaking to the Chambers Student Guide's Paul Rance.
This feature was first published in our May 2015 newsletter.