For a barrister in London’s law courts the highest prize is to be selected to the Queen’s Counsel— to “take silk,” as they say, in reference to the sleek robes of the lucky few. Martha Costello and Clive Reader have each submitted applications. Since they’re both associates in the same small law chambers, only one will be chosen.
Meanwhile, they have their hands full with cases. These are brought to the chambers by solicitors representing defendants and are assigned by the canny senior clerk, Billy Lamb.
Martha’s first case is a drug-running charge against a pregnant woman named Mercedes. Mercedes’ driver is also charged and is defended by Clive, who cleverly turns the tables on Martha in court, persuading the judge to give a harsher sentence to Mercedes than to the driver. Score one for Clive!
The second case is aggravated burglary, in which career criminal Gary Rush is accused of robbing and beating an elderly war hero. Martha is joined by her new “pupil” (legal assistant), Nick Slade, who gets to watch a Perry-Mason-like performance, as Martha proves police misconduct in what should have been an open-and-shut conviction. Score one for Martha!
But after the trial a parcel with the hero’s stolen war medal arrives in Martha’s mailbox, suggesting that Rush was guilty after all. Soon after, Rush is back in jail on another burglary charge.
In Martha’s next trial, Billy convinces her to take a rape case to broaden her appeal to the Queen’s Counsel panel. Her client is Alan Bradley, charged with raping Annie Laidlaw, his ex-girlfriend. Martha is a well-known critic of the treatment of rape victims in the justice system, and this is a chance to show she can work the other side of the street. As a sign of the independence of barristers, Clive is assigned to prosecute the case. He also hopes to impress the silk panel.
Like Martha, Clive has a new pupil, Niamh Cranitch, the daughter of an influential judge. As is his practice, Clive has wasted no time in seducing his attractive young colleague.
At the trial, seduction is Topic A, as Clive paints a devastating picture of Alan. Martha responds by grilling Annie about her motive for asking Alan to stop by her flat and then appearing at the door wrapped in a towel. Despite confiding to Nick that she believes Annie’s allegation, Martha goes for the jugular and wins an acquittal for her client. Score another one for Martha!
But personal trauma clouds her triumph. For one thing, she has discovered she is pregnant and is trying to work an abortion into her frantic schedule. For another, Rush, out on bail, is stalking her.
In other action, Martha and Clive’s fellow barrister at chambers Kate Brockman is fomenting a revolt against Billy’s rule. He is just too “mafia”-like in his dispensing of cases and favors, she alleges. Catching wind of the insurrection, Billy hints that he can be very mafia-like indeed.