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Criminal law

Criminal law: area of practice (barristers)

A challenging area to get started in, but it offers a wide range of opportunities for advocacy, explains Stephen Page from Goldsmith Chambers.
With a laptop, iPad and smartphone, there’s rarely a need to spend time in chambers, except to make the necessary telephone calls to keep abreast of the next court appearance.

Criminal barristers deal with the full spectrum of criminal offences and prosecute on behalf of the Crown Prosecution Service or other agencies such as local authorities, the RSPCA, the National Probation Service and the British Transport Police. Barristers may also specialise in defence work.

In delivering justice in an age of austerity, practising at the criminal bar will present many challenges that will have tremendous impact upon your early years. However, you will obtain an enormous amount of enjoyment and satisfaction from knowing that you will make a difference to people’s lives: to protect the weak and vulnerable, those marginalised from mainstream society and those who do not have access to the justice system, either because of financial constraints or through language and communication difficulties.

What is a typical case in criminal law?

Typical cases do not exist in criminal law as you tend to cover a wide range of areas from theft, burglary, assaults, sexual assaults, to fraud and road traffic offences. Timescales can range from a matter of minutes to long trials that go on for months, particularly in the Crown Court.

What is life as a criminal barrister like?

Criminal practice lends itself to being on the road most days and you spend very little, if any, time in chambers. With a laptop, iPad and smartphone, there’s rarely a need to spend time in chambers, except to make the necessary telephone calls to keep abreast of the next court appearance.

The job is extremely varied as you are always travelling to different courts up and down the country. Your day may finish in the morning if your case gets cut short or, alternatively, you may not get back home until 7.00 pm or 8.00 pm in the evening and then need to prepare for the following day into the early hours.

The main attraction for many starting off is the feeling of fearlessly conducting Crown Court trials and persuading the court of your client’s innocence. To reach this stage, unsocial hours and hours of preparation, case analysis, research, as well as cancelled appointments with your friends and loved ones, are typically required. You will experience the highs and lows of winning and losing, and the inherent frustrations of cases on a daily basis: in short, an emotional roller-coaster.

Is criminal law recession-proof?

In choosing to come to the criminal bar, there are many rewards that await you and many successes. However, you must stop and reflect upon the difficulties that pursuing a career in this field will pose. A senior judge has aptly described the situation: ‘Fees have been cut to the bone and there are deep scars on the bone.’ You are coming to the Bar during a period of immense financial change, which will no doubt affect your career.

Commitment, discipline and a flexible approach to your practice may overcome the financial constraints that will be thrust upon you in your early days of practice. Remember that despite the pressures and deep-seated changes that are abreast, it is a career that brings many happy returns, both intellectual and social.

What do pupils do in criminal law?

In your first six months, you will be attached to a pupil supervisor who will monitor your progress and development. You will learn from criminal practitioners while attending different types of courts. This is a golden opportunity to observe different types of advocacy and to see what works and what does not work. You can then adapt and develop your own advocacy style effectively for the court.

In the second six months, you will be on your feet and be, no doubt, extremely nervous while conducting your first case in front of an intimidating judge. Versatility and flexibility in dealing with the variety and amount of offences and clients.

STEPHEN PAGE is a barrister at GOLDSMITH CHAMBERS. He has an English degree from Southampton University and was called to the Bar in 2003.