Areas of work, specialisms and alternatives

What is public law? A guide for aspiring barrister pupils

25 Aug 2023, 13:56

Public law cases will likely be under the media spotlight – you’ll need a degree of creativity as well as legal skills to succeed.

Tower Bridge, Big Ben, Palace of Westminster against an evening sky

In public law it becomes fantastically creative as to how you bring the claim or frame your argument. There’s also a real opportunity to make new law the whole time because challenges are often inherently political. Carine Patry KC wrote our page on public law. Carine is a barrister at Landmark Chambers ; she was called to the Bar in 2000 and has an LLB from Glasgow University and an LLM from Cambridge University.

Carine Patry KC, barrister at Landmark Chambers

A picture of Carine Patry, against a brown background with an illuminated orange stripe

Public law in essence involves challenges to government decisions and government in all its forms, whether that’s local government or wider departments. Cases could be about money, but more often they revolve around a principle or decision that affects someone’s life in a way that isn’t monetary.

There isn’t a ‘typical’ case in public law, but there are two main ways in which a challenge is likely to be brought: through the tribunal system, for example where someone has been refused social security benefits and is given right of appeal; or through judicial review, which is a legal challenge against the decision of a governmental or quasi-governmental body.

Public law can involve a range of clients. I’m on the government’s ‘A panel’, which means that I do a lot of strategic government work and the government is one of my main clients. I also do work for quasi-governmental bodies such as the disclosure and barring service, and for local authorities, individuals or NGOs. Barristers in public law will often work for ‘both sides’, eg government and challengers to government. Cases are heard in the administrative court – the High Court – for judicial reviews. Cases may also be heard in tribunals or the Court of Appeal.

What do public barristers do?

Barristers in this area average eight to ten cases active in a week, but that is not to say that there will not be other cases going on. One case could require a call with a solicitor, while the next one may require a piece of written work and another preparing for a hearing. You’ll likely be in court twice a week but sometimes more.

The Bar has a reputation for long hours and stress, but my experience has been the complete opposite. You are ultimately self-employed and in charge of your own life. As long as you book holidays with a decent amount of notice and speak to your clerks, the work/life balance is quite good.

What is life like as a public law pupil?

In chambers we do try to make sure that pupils have a good work/life balance and don’t work late into the night or weekends. Pupils will likely undertake a public law seat, one planning seat and one property seat, and one other area of practice of their choosing for the final seat. This process may differ at different chambers. In the first six months they will be exposed to a variety of work, before taking some cases in their second six.

As a pupil you will likely be drafting claims for judicial review or summary grounds of defence, and you might be advising on right to get advice and attending conferences about cases and hearings. You will also be writing skeleton arguments and undertaking written work, pleadings, particulars of claim in property and perhaps helping draft witness statements in planning law. There is a lot of tribunal work available at the junior end of the Bar.

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

Public law barristers need the empathy to interact with a wide range of clients, from major government bodies to asylum seekers and individuals in trouble. They require the the creativity to think about how they bring cases and frame arguments, an interest in politics and leadership skills. Often you’ll be working with a team and may need to get them working together to provide you with the information that you need.

Types of law practised within public law

  • Public law will likely interact with every other type of law

How much can I earn as a public law pupil?

You will likely shadow a number of different members of chambers alongside your pupil supervisor and may later specialise in one area of law (generally one of chambers’ specialties) once you have been in practice for some time. As such 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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