Areas of work, specialisms and alternatives

What is criminal law? A guide for aspiring barrister pupils

25 Aug 2023, 13:49

Criminal barristers are in court regularly and make a real difference to the lives of many. Sadly, they are often not well remunerated and it can be tough in the early years of practice.

A police car, symbolising working at the criminal Bar

The best aspects of criminal law are the variety of work, the interesting people you meet, the adrenaline rush of cross-examination and closing speeches, and the satisfaction that you get in playing an important part in someone’s life. This is according to Francesca Levett, barrister at 5 St Andrew’s Hill, who provided targetjobs with this overview of criminal law at the Bar below.

Meet Francesca Levett, barrister at 5 St Andrew’s Hill

Francesca Levett, barrister at 5 St Andrew’s Hill

What is criminal law at the Bar?

Criminal law is the system of laws concerned with the punishment of individuals (and sometimes companies) who commit criminal offences. Most prosecutions are brought by the Crown Prosecution Service. The majority of criminal cases are heard in the magistrates’ court by either lay magistrates or a district judge. The more serious cases are heard by a judge and jury in the Crown Court.

What do criminal barristers do?

A criminal barrister’s main work is attending court hearings as a case progresses from its first appearance in the magistrates’ court through to trial (in either the magistrates’ or Crown Court) and then, if necessary, sentence. A case may take several months to conclude.

Criminal law ranges from minor cases, such as shoplifting, to cases at the other end of the spectrum, such as murder and terrorism. My practice, for example, encompasses the whole range of criminal offences but mostly fraud, serious sexual offences and drugs cases. Criminal barristers represent people from all walks of life, but a large number of them are vulnerable due to issues such as mental health problems or addiction.

Barristers in this area are in court every day. Most days are spent conducting trials but there are other hearings that need to be covered such as bail applications, hearings about disclosure and sentences.

The work can be unpredictable. Cases might not be given to you until the night before the hearing and you will then have to work as long as necessary to ensure that you are ready to conduct the case the next morning. Short notice cases can play havoc with your social life and might mean working into the early hours. You may also be expected to travel quite considerable distances to conduct hearings in other parts of England and Wales, which can mean some very long days.

What is life like as a criminal law pupil?

Most chambers do their best to ensure that pupils, especially in their first six months, are working sensible hours but there will be occasions when extra work will be required in the evenings and at weekends. In the second six months, pupils will find themselves working in the evenings as they prepare for their cases the next day.

What skills do you need to be a criminal law barrister?

Criminal barristers can be dealing with tough cases that have a real impact on people’s lives. They need a level head and good communications skills. A high caseload means you need the ability to ability to manage your time effectively and work under pressure. You’ll also need sound judgement and a large dose of common sense.

Types of law practised within criminal law

  • Criminal

How much can I earn as a criminal law pupil?

Sadly, there has been underinvestment in the criminal justice system for a considerable time. This has affected fees and the court infrastructure. Some fees have recently been increased for prosecution work, but there seems little prospect that defence fees are going to be significantly improved in the foreseeable future. As such earnings can be less for those working in criminal law when compared to their commercial counterparts. Some criminal sets may only be able to offer the minimum pupillage award (£20,703 in London and £18,884 outside of London) set by the Bar Standards Board.

It can be tricky to nail down exact earnings for early tenants, but you can take a look at our overview of How much you can earn as a pupil barrister to get a general idea of how much each chambers offers to pupils. Sets in the more commercially orientated areas tend to offer between £40,000 and £75,000 for 12 months but there is a huge variation by practice area.

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This describes editorially independent and impartial content, which has been written and edited by the targetjobs content team. Any external contributors featuring in the article are in line with our non-advertorial policy, by which we mean that we do not promote one organisation over another.

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