Public law: area of practice (barristers)

Barristers in this field interact with a variety of different areas of law and need good oral advocacy skills, explains Samantha Leek QC from 5 Essex Court.

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Public law attracts media attention because the cases go to the heart of some of our most fundamental rights.

Public and administrative law concern the relationship between individuals and the state; the area of practice involves the body of law that governs that relationship and allows individuals to challenge the state. This is not an area full of the courtroom drama of witness handling; it is about going to the core of the law itself and persuading a judge by the strength of your argument.

Public law cases affect human rights

Public law attracts media attention because the cases go to the heart of some of our most fundamental rights. There is no such thing as a typical case, but a good example might be a judicial review in the High Court. This would involve drafting the claim or summary grounds of resistance and, if permission is granted, detailed grounds of resistance followed by the final hearing, which might last a day or two. Such a case might comprise a challenge to a decision or policy and frequently involves human rights claims.

Juniors spend between two and four days per week in court and work on a higher volume of smaller cases, perhaps 20 at once. In silk, cases tend to require more preparation time and take longer in court. Silks might have somewhere between three and ten cases on the go.

Public law cases are typically tried in the High Court or, in immigration cases, the Upper Tribunal. Cases often go up to the Court of Appeal, Supreme Court and to Europe. Inquests are heard by coroners’ courts, while police civil work and civil work for the Prison Service and government departments are heard in the county court.

Life at the public law bar

Last-minute instructions tend to be the exception rather than the rule in public law and a good work/life balance is possible. I have found that in silk my work is more predictable and I am able to manage my practice so that it fits in with family commitments.

Every case in public law has human interest and provides insight into areas of life into which one might otherwise have no knowledge – for example, prisons, the police service and the Ministry of Defence. At the same time, the legal work can be complex and challenging. However, the pay may not be as high as the commercial bar.

Students should keep watch for Catt and T v. ACPO and Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis (listed to be heard by the Supreme Court in December 2014). The case will look at police retention of data and the difficult balance between protecting the public and the individual’s right to a private life. This should be a fascinating case to follow.


Until now, public law has been a busy and fast-developing practice area, which has proved relatively unscathed by the economic climate. That may soon change. It will be interesting to see the impact of the government’s controversial proposed reforms of judicial review on this area of work.

As a pupil

Pupils normally work from 9.00 am to 6.00 pm. However, if they are working on a big case this will not always be possible. Tasks can be everything from disclosure to drafting, legal research to attending court. There are opportunities for early responsibility – one recent pupil found herself in the Court of Appeal in her first case! However, pupils are normally put in an environment that balances responsibility with a supportive space in which to learn and – inevitably – make mistakes.

Types of law practised

  • Public law intersects with almost every other area of law

Good public law barristers have...

  • An understanding of the concerns and priorities of public authorities
  • Analytical brainpower as well as a clear mind to explain complex concepts simply
  • Good drafting ability because you need to pin down your case from the beginning
  • Strong oral advocacy

SAMANTHA LEEK QC is a barrister at 5 ESSEX COURT . She graduated in modern languages from the University of Oxford in 1991 and was called to the Bar in 1993. Samantha was a member of the attorney general’s Panel of Treasury Counsel until she took silk in 2012.

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