The healing beauty of the lawful workgroup

I had a life-changing experience this week, for the better, at the High Court in London

The Rolls Building

Those who have been following my writing for the past few years know that I have had a rough time with the legal system, encountering seemingly endless official lawbreaking, corruption, fraud, stonewalling, maladministration, extortion, and even treason. Every single encounter with the lower courts and tribunals has been defective in some way, sometimes to the point of those in authority meriting prison time for breach of oath and abuse of office.

As my mother reminded me this week, even the very first small claim I was party to in the early 1990s, to get a deposit back from a greedy and lying landlord, was unsatisfactory. The judge had not read our submission beforehand, ignored the points we made, and failed to return all the monies we were due. I generally don’t go seeking confrontations with the police or legal system, having filed two claims in my whole life, and have never been arrested or convicted for anything. So it is not like I have a fetish for “dirty law”.

This made the contrast with my excellent experience in London all the more striking. I don’t want to go into any of the details of the case here, as that is a completely separate matter. Judgement has been reserved, so there is no outcome to report at present. What is relevant is the emotional and spiritual impact on me as an individual, attending as a documentarian, who for the first time observed the legal system functioning as it is meant to be, for the benefit of all. It has been a profound shift that has given me hope and inspiration.

Train station day time

Getting up at just after 6am for a train into London from Staines, where I grew up and my parents still live, was somewhat draining. I have had so many bruising encounters with self-interested and self-righteous members of the legal profession and judiciary, my expectations were low. During the proceedings, however, I felt a calm descend upon me. Rather than rancour and resentment, this hearing was directed towards truth and righteousness, and brought peace.

By the time I left court, I felt energised, as I had crossed that “zero to one” boundary of participating in the “real deal”, and would never go back. The way I put it to one person was that I had often travelled on the “justice steam train”, but always relegated to the toilets, the coal tender, the luggage store, the roof, and the third-class carriage. Sometimes I had gone nowhere as the service was cancelled. On this occasion, I got to sit in first class, and once you know what it feels like, you don’t want to revert to how you previously were discomforted or endangered.

The steps to the Memorial are designed to be hard to walk

Having driven down from Scotland over the weekend, I went with one of the claimants on the day before the court hearing to Runnymede, where the Magna Carta was signed. It is a familiar stomping ground, as I was born and grew up nearby. It is also the location of the memorial to John F Kennedy, and the juxtaposition is not lost on me. Arguably Magna Carta formalised pre-existing English customs of equal justice, some of which stretch back to Druidic times. The death of JFK marks the domination of the money and military complex over the will of the English-speaking people.

Magna Carta is also the result of one of the most famous legal workgroups in recorded history, and the River Urr (per the case being fought at the High Court) is close to the former residence of its sole Scottish signatory, Alan of Galloway. Having retraced his steps, this contemporary case was not only a positive outcome for me in legal terms, but also therapeutic at a deeper level as a justice and freedom activist. The High Court in London gave me an existence proof of what the rule of law claims to be. It brought forth a modern workgroup that illustrated healthy cooperation, directed towards peace, even where there might be disagreement.

To commemorate magna carta symbol of freedom under law

This idea of a workgroup was formalised by psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion. As I am feeling lazy, I have asked Google’s Gemini to summarise his work — “What did Wilfred Bion say about workgroups, at both their best, and their worst.” Here’s what I got, lightly edited:

Work Group – At Its Best:

  • Task-Focused and Collaborative: The work group is defined by its commitment to its primary task – the thing they are brought together to accomplish.
  • Rational and Problem-Solving: Members operate with a sense of shared purpose, using their knowledge and skills to analyse problems and work towards solutions.
  • Mature and Learning-Oriented: The work group environment encourages open communication, the ability to tolerate differences of opinion, and the willingness to learn from mistakes.

Work Group – At Its Worst (Basic Assumption Groups)

Bion theorized that any group, even those striving to be productive, is susceptible to slipping into less effective “basic assumption” mindsets. He identified three primary types:

  1. Dependency: Members passively rely on a leader figure for all direction and decision-making. The group avoids responsibility and becomes stifled by an expectation of a “saviour.”
  2. Fight-Flight: The group fixates on an external enemy (real or imagined) or engages in internal conflict. Energy is diverted from the task to attacking or evading the perceived threat.
  3. Pairing: Members become preoccupied with a fantasised future solution or hope that will emerge from a pairing (of two members, an idea, etc.). The group becomes passive and avoids tackling the problems of the present.

Crucial Points from Bion:

  • Unconscious Dynamics: Bion believed these basic assumption states reflect unconscious group processes, which can derail even well-intentioned work groups.
  • Fluidity: A group can rapidly shift between work-group mentality and basic assumption states.
  • Potential for Transformation: By recognising basic assumption patterns when they arise, a group can regain a more rational and productive mindset.

Important to Note Bion’s workgroup theories are complex and offer more nuance than this summary can convey. He delved into how individual psychological development interacts with group dynamics.

My sense is that this framework is useful in making sense of positive versus negative experiences in court. It is an alignment of the individuals, the group, and the containing context that determines how well it operates. Let’s take a look at them in turn.

People jogging bridge

The people

The judge, Sir Adam Johnson, has a background that is not entirely dissimilar to my own. He went to a state school (albeit longer that me), was the first person to go to university in his family (me too), and prospered at Cambridge (we can’t all be perfect). The moment he came into the room he dispensed with the airs and graces. Unlike other justices I have encountered, he was not enamoured with his own position; the authority is the law, not the man. He came over as respectful, open-minded, and diligent.

The barrister for (one of the) defendants, Adam Riley, is a bright young man who has an enthusiasm for rigour (that’s a high compliment) while retaining a gentlemanly demeanour for someone of his intellect. He has a notable ability to master and exposit a complex topic quickly and clearly. This gained the respect of the claimants present, and trust beneficiary observers, who were impressed in post-court discussions. He pushed right up to the appropriate line in an adversarial system, but did not aggressively cross it, nor did he weakly stop short of it.

The lead claimant was Darren Scott, a seasoned sea captain with a personal interest in maritime law and a wide understanding of the subject as a lay practitioner. He has been to senior courts on multiple occasions as a litigant in person, and generally won. Also present was Tim Dennis, who has circumnavigated the world by land on his own, and acquired licenses as a sailor, pilot, and goods vehicle driver, as well as being a lay expert in common law travel. There were no country bumpkins in the room having a fun day in London at the expense of others.

Cityscape water

The workgroup

The judge on entering made it clear he had no issues with minor procedural matters about bundles. He was there for the substance, not the form, and said we were present to do a job together. This may be a more explicit matter in an inquisitorial legal system, and it is not my place to contrast that with an adversarial one. My observation is merely that this was the adversarial system working at its best. The precondition is that the judge comes from a place of veneration for the rule of law as convenor, not for himself as a minor deity. In this instance, he was tangibly only concerned with “working through the problem”. The judge was appropriately helpful to a litigant in person without practising law from the bench.

At one point the defence’s barrister wished to dismiss the claimant’s position as “misconceived”, which in the legal paradigm he came from was a credible position. In doing so he was careful to phrase it as not being pejorative to the claimants themselves. This was a spiritually enlightened move, but not for the reason you might imagine. In my later reflection, it became clear to me that the paradigm he was advocating from omits some relevant (and possibly determinative) facets of ports, and the law that governs them. But by being polite in making his point, there is no loss of face to himself if his tentative assertion is ever contradicted. There was no verbal violence involved, and therefore everyone’s honour was conserved.

Clock outside building

Conversely, the observers who had come down from Scotland had the good manners not to chortle at an eloquent Englishman struggling with the pronunciation of Kirkcudbrightshire. Everyone was listening to everything being said, and the judge at times reminded me of someone in a tutorial being put under maximum performance pressure at the highest possible level of concentration. It was only afterwards that I was gifted the workgroup concept and terminology to label the collective magic I was enjoying.

Both sides were attentive to the other, as fundamentally there is an agreement that the case needs to be heard in the right jurisdiction, so the final adjudication has meaning and staying power. I could see that the claimants had something to learn about a matter of law and assumptions over the sub-jurisdictions that comprise the totality of Britain. The defendant’s barrister, being understandably less familiar with maritime matters, made a tiny factual error in regard to trust beneficiaries. Everybody was advancing towards an external reality of fact and law, at a cost to nobody.

Beautiful old architecture

What did not happen is as important as what did. There was no dependency on the judge as a total authority on everything. Being a hearing on jurisdiction, with an essential agnosticism to the outcome, meant there was no external threat to point at. And there was no pairing — for instance, whereby the judge gangs up with one side, in order to steamroller the other. Having seen some absolutely shocking abuses from the bench before now, it was riveting to see participants at the peak of their game collaborating to discover what the law says about this problem.

The context

The nature of the case crosses over multiple legal domains, including maritime law, trust law, and devolution of power from Westminster. Nobody is an expert in all of these, and the judge was unafraid to state that this was the first time he had ever heard of trust ports, and was keen for an education. Devolution from Westminster to assemblies in Belfast, Cardiff, and Edinburgh is a somewhat obscure part of law to most of us. It was easier to be humble, as there was no pride to defend in having all the answers. Everyone was to some extent on new legal territory.

London Tide at National Theatre poster

There is something about cases at the High Court in London that is qualitatively different to the local courts in the Beyond Rotten Boroughs of our country. There is a gravity, history, and culture to the place that demands excellence. There is arguably no greater legal centre in the world, and the breadth and depth of expertise and services in top class. There was no acting out of minor power games for small parochial prizes, or lashing out with sharp words from unprocessed childhood trauma. Still, the defence barrister looking surprised when I thanked him for his work, as it was serving the public interest as well as his client!

The very high end of the legal world, with the most sophisticated players, is capable of making the adversarial system work with panache. The advocate who truly adores equality under the rule of law — above all else — can never lose a case, as upholding the law is never a loss. Both sides get to test their own positions and the other’s with honour, and are better for it. In this particular case the decision is a binary choice, so one side’s hypothesis is necessarily tested to destruction. In other cases, there may be a synthesis to be found. Done “by the book” with enlightened parties who see lawful justice as the only “win” worth having, no enemies are made.

The great charter of freedoms

In the mode of thinking from Peter Senge’s well-known business book The Fifth Discipline, “law as peacemaking” demands a pride-free detachment from our ideas, so learning can happen. If we conduct all legal affairs as warfare, then we will only get hurt. There is a time to recognise that war is being waged against us, and potentially dishonourably or dishonestly, and that we must defend ourselves and hold a corrupted institution to account. But the system of law visibly is not broken in this particular arena. At this point I cannot tell you the outcome other than “everyone has won by playing their part”.

If I was a billionaire philanthropist I would have volunteered to foot the legal bill for the defendants on this occasion, as the jurisdictional issue is not of their making, regardless of the rights or wrongs of their actions. Ultimately Parliament and/or the Privy Council are responsible for the quality of the legislation on the books, and if old orders don’t fit with modern devolved government, it is unfair for individuals on the hook for unrelated complaints are forced to resolve this ambiguity. Unfortunately I am spectacularly short of that fiscal league, having accumulated riches in non-material ways only.

Runnymede birthplace of freedom

My readers have heard many distressing legal stories from me in the past, so I hope that a tale of delight for a change brings you a pleasant “anti-shock”. It is incumbent on all of us to attend local institutions and keep power in check where it is being misused. Conversely, there is real value in having a reference experience of the “best in class” doing the job as a task-led professional workgroup. As a totem of what is possible, my experience on Monday will live with me for a long time, in a good way. After so many traumas in court, it was healing to see it done right, by a righteous assembly of honourable men.

Beautiful, indeed.