General common law: area of practice (barristers)

Barristers work across a wide range of areas of law but tend to specialise in one or two, says Katherine Dunseath from 3PB.

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Common law covers many different areas of law. At a common law set a barrister may work across a wide range of areas of law but tends to specialise in one or two. For example a family law specialist may work on: divorce and the finances arising out of this; issues concerning children; schooling, operations, holidays, international relocation and abduction; Court of Protection work involving decisions regarding vulnerable people; and care cases where there are allegations that the child has been physically and/or emotionally harmed by a parent.

Choosing where to specialise in common law and the lifestyle to expect as a barrister

Cases can vary greatly depending on the area of law and the issues that need to be determined. Many barristers in chambers specialise in more than one area of law. For example many employment practitioners also specialise in contract law and personal injury. In employment cases they will appear in the employment tribunals or in the High Court, depending on the complexity of the case, and for the contract and personal injury work in the county courts.

I specialise in family law and personal injury and my cases can vary greatly. For example in my family practice I have been involved in complex High Court cases that last for weeks followed by a one-day basic personal injury case such as a road traffic accident, heard by a district judge in the county court.

A large part of being a barrister is getting the best result for your client and knowing that you have made a difference is also incredibly fulfilling. At general common law sets you will be in court at least three days per week from your second six months of pupillage onwards, which gives you a lot of advocacy experience early on.

Unfortunately while the job can be satisfying it does require work and dedication as you are regularly dealing with charged emotional situations.

What are the developments you should know about in common law?

Positive changes in family law include the new FDAC (Family Drug and Alcohol Court). This is an excellent advancement and has resulted in many families reforming and having children returned to their care. Further initiatives like this – addressing other issues and/or concerns that are surmountable – will hopefully result in more parents being able to care for their children in the long term.

Another positive note is that there is now more transparency in this area of law. The aim is to reduce the chances of a miscarriage of justice occurring as local authorities and the courts are subject to public scrutiny. This can only be a good thing.

One concern is the requirement that care cases be completed within 26 weeks, which certain judges are strictly adhering to. Applying an arbitrary time limit on proceedings is sometimes not in the interests of justice.

Is common law recession-proof?

The government has made a lot of cuts to legally aided cases. The cuts have meant that people who previously would have been eligible for legal aid are now acting in person. I am concerned by the lack of access to justice where in complex cases these parties are hugely disadvantaged and unqualified to run the case themselves, potentially leading to injustice.

What can you expect as a pupil in common law?

As a pupil you will be assisting your supervisor with their work during your first six months and undertaking legal research on their areas of practice. You may also be expected to draft skeleton arguments and advices on these areas.

During the second six months of pupillage you will be on your feet in court dealing with basic legal disputes, such as small claims. You will be in control of your cases but as it’s within your pupillage you are still under the supervision of your pupil supervisor and, if you are unsure about something, don’t be afraid to ask!

Types of law practised by common law barristers

  • Family.
  • Crime.
  • Personal injury and clinical negligence.
  • Contract.
  • Employment.
  • Chancery.

KATHERINE DUNSEATH is a family law specialist at 3PB. She studied geography at Brunel University and was called to the Bar in 2008.

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