A piece of history has disappeared from the Faculty of Advocates with the ending of the system of boxes for counsel’s instructions

The lid has come down on a piece of Faculty history with the end of the unique role of the advocate’s box as a means of receiving instructions from solicitors.

Due to security concerns, both physical and on data protection grounds, only the boxes of Queen’s Counsel will remain in place in the box corridor as a tourist attraction, but locked and no longer of practical use.

A few more will be placed in the Laigh Hall, directly underneath Parliament Hall.

To replace the boxes, each advocate has been provided with a pigeon hole in the security surroundings of the former male gown room in Parliament House, organised according to which stable the advocate belongs.

For generations, each advocate has had his or her own wooden box with a brass nameplate, which provided a simple but effective delivery system for solicitors wishing to leave papers for counsel they wished to instruct.

From there the papers were collected by the advocate or advocate’s clerk so that progress could be made in the case.

Of course, in an age of mobile phones, emails and electronic diaries, and with each stable having its own website, there are much more modern ways to contact an advocate, but there is a sense of regret at the demise of the boxes.

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.

To avoid the domestic inconvenience, 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 papers to be inserted, 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.

Mungo Bovey QC, Keeper of the Advocates Library said: “Like every other member of Faculty I’ve talked to, I regret the decision.

“The boxes are part of the tradition of Parliament House and, I understand, unique in the world, but they are also convenient. Their appeal was practicality and utility as well as charm.”

The Author
Bruce McKain is director of public affairs for the Faculty of Advocates and former law correspondent for The Herald  
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