'I feel totally and utterly stitched up'

Michael Martin speaks for the first time about his acrimonious split from Cloisters. Matheu Swallow reports.

Senior clerk Michael Martin is an embittered man who claims his ejection, after 26 years, from Cloisters chambers has left him humiliated and close to a nervous breakdown.

“I feel totally and utterly stitched up. They've wiped 26 years off my life. I felt proud and loyal to be senior clerk at Cloisters,” says Martin.

It is a saga of the old-style clerk versus the new-style chambers management. The battle has left Martin the loser at his old set, but he is striking out against Cloisters by establishing a rival with some of the sets old tenants.

Martin was thought to be one of the highest-paid clerks at the bar. His wage was derived purely from a percentage of the tenants' earnings, rather than as a salary which is the norm today. And it is those astronomical earnings which Martin believes was the reason for his departure.

“You don't need a management consultant to come in and tell you if you cut [the clerk's] money you can save a lot of money. If that's the way of the future then so be it, but I don't think it needs to be,” he says.

He left chambers in February, when The Lawyer reported he was seeking legal advice. He has since agreed a settlement and struck out on his own, setting up Cardinal Chambers with several former Cloisters tenants.

Martin is still bitter at the treatment he feels he received.

“If they wanted to get rid of me then fine. I'm not going to stay where I'm not wanted. It was the way in which they did it.”

The manner in which he was ousted, he says, brought him close to breakdown and may yet destroy his marriage. “I think after that length of time in chambers, and having, in my opinion, added to the success of chambers in a big way, that I could have been treated with much more respect,” Martin says.

“Especially by a chambers like that which, to the outside world, has got all these things in place to treat their so-called staff fairly. I think they attempted to cause me maximum stress and it's brought me close to a breakdown.

“If they wanted me to go, they could have come to me. I'm a civilised person. I might not have been happy about it. They needn't as a group, or whoever was involved in it, have lied or bullied. They do a lot of stress at work cases in chambers. They lecture on stress at work. Everything they lecture you shouldn't do in the office, they do.”

Martin had hoped to finish his career at Cloisters. In 1985 he became senior clerk and claims he played a major role in building Cloisters into one of the country's leading sets, which is now highly-rated in civil liberties, clinical negligence and personal injury, crime, and employment law.

The events leading up to Martin's departure began in October 1998, when he was informed in writing that a complaint had been made against him about a remark he was alleged to have made to a junior tenant.

A formal hearing, he tells The Lawyer, took place in November, before three senior members of chambers, where Martin and several other tenants were interviewed.

It took Cloisters six weeks to deliver a verdict and, just before the New Year, the complaint was dismissed.

However, despite being exonerated, Martin is bitter at the length of time it took to reach and deliver a decision, which, he says, caused maximum stress and humiliation.

In addition, and despite being deemed to be without foundation, it was decided that a full chambers meeting would be convened to discuss the complaint.

Martin says he was told this would concentrate only on the complaint and that his future was not on the line. “This is what I feel extremely bitter about, because it was totally untrue,” he says.

Tenants present at the meeting have told Martin that every barrister, in turn, was asked to give an opinion on him. Martin claims he has been told that at this point one barrister walked out in disgust. That evening, Martin says, he received a conciliatory phone call from a senior tenant which left him thinking he had been sacked.

On Monday, Martin says he arrived at work to be told that chambers had lost confidence in him and asked if he would like to take 10 days off to think about his future. When he turned up for work on Tuesday, he was told to leave chambers immediately.

Martin's new venture, Cardinal Chambers, is in part to prove to his former employers that he is still a good clerk.

“I've got a burning ambition, I've done it once – built up a good set of chambers – to do it again. One of the things driving me on is to prove to a lot of people that I'm still a good clerk.”

Cloisters refuses to comment. Martin is taking a risk in publicising the details of his departure, but strongly believes it is worth it.

“If they really want to take my house away let them. If they want to put my kids on the street, let them. They've almost taken my family already,” he says. “I'm only just picking up the pieces. They've made my life intolerable.”