Criminal law: area of practice (barristers)
The essence of criminal law is about justice – ensuring that a defendant receives a fair trial, but also that society is protected and those who have done wrong are punished and rehabilitated.
There is no such thing as a typical case, as you find out early on. Depending on your chambers, you may gain experience in a broad range of matters including fraud, offences against the person, sexual offences and road traffic offences.
You will have clients who are young offenders: some will be from deprived backgrounds; others from what may be seen as supportive backgrounds. You will have adult clients who are professionals (doctors, police officers etc), those who have never been in trouble before, and those who have spent their lives in the system and seem to know it better than you.
Crime practitioners might typically be in court at least four out of five days a week – although some of those days will be short days where you are dealing with mentions (preparatory hearings for the forthcoming trial such as applications for further disclosure or applications for evidence to be excluded etc.) or sentences. However, there will be periods where you are working on longer cases where you will be preparing out of court for days on end, followed by a continuous period of time in court.
Work/life balance can be difficult at the Bar as it not the type of job that you can simply switch off – the unexpected often happens when you least want it to. However, a work/life balance can be achieved – I am a mother and work part time, on a week on/week off basis. You need to be flexible and accept that at some point you will be flat out with preparation or in court and at other times there will be a lull.
Socialising with contacts is an important part of the work as it is key to have a good relationship with your instructing solicitors, but this does not have to affect your work/life balance.
Criminal trials, alleged offences and law reforms are regularly in the media. There is a wide spectrum of interest in criminal cases both at a local and national level. Don’t be surprised to regularly have a journalist sitting in on a trial.
One of the best aspects of being at the criminal bar is that you sometimes feel you are making a real difference to people’s lives. Also, working on a jury trial gives you a real buzz – particularly when giving your speech to the jury. The downside to this area of law is the feeling that there has been a true injustice. It very rarely happens and there is a right of appeal when it does.
These are difficult times at the Bar and you should not come into it expecting to become wealthy straightaway, especially if you practise mainly criminal law. But there is good work still available and you can earn a reasonably good living in time.
As a pupil...
In your first six, you will be with your pupil supervisor and will often be asked to assist in the preparation of a case. These will include: reading the whole or parts of your supervisor’s brief; preparing documents for the case; and researching areas that have been requested by your supervisor. In the second six, pupils are on their feet conducting their own cases.
Types of law practised
- Criminal law.
A good criminal barrister has…
- Good advocacy skills and the ability to communicate points clearly to the different audiences (client, judge, jury and solicitor).
- Analytical skills.
- The ability to think quickly on his or her feet.
- A strong stomach. Some criminal cases are not be for the fainthearted.
- Good teamwork skills, with the ability to lead.
- Sound drafting skills – defence case statements are now served in almost every contested criminal case in the Crown Court and it is important to draft these accurately as they can be used against your client.
CAROLINE HARRIS is a barrister at ONE KING'S BENCH WALK. She studied mathematics and philosophy at Bristol University and was called to the Bar in 2004. She specialises in criminal law but also practises family law, in particular where the two fields overlap.