Aspiring criminal barristers have to want to expose themselves every day to the public scrutiny of judges and juries and that exposure can, sometimes, feel relentless and remorseless. However the best barristers know that a willingness to speak out in a courtroom should not be confused with an enthusiasm for speaking out on more public stages. Self-promotion on television and radio is something most barristers instinctively recoil from. Historically barristers weren’t even permitted business cards so repugnant was the notion of publicity and so inimical it was considered to be to the role of barristers within the criminal justice system.
A consequence of this legacy is that barristers often conduct their work away from the public eye. Unless you have been a juror, a witness or, heaven forbid, a defendant it is highly unlikely that you have ever stepped into a courtroom. As a result of that your understanding of the workings of the criminal courts will depend entirely on what you have seen on screen, read in print or learnt from talking to others.
Rumpole, Kavanagh Q.C., Judge John Deed and Silk are not real. However much television strives for verisimilitude these programmes are entertainment and only entertainment. Painful though it is to acknowledge so too is the vast majority of media reporting of criminal cases.
This article from the New Statesman sets out the lamentable reality of court reporting in the 21st century. We all know never to believe anything we read in the newspapers but the temptation when reading reports outside our immediate sphere of knowledge is to do just that. The public interest test applied by the media is whether something is interesting to the public. This usually means sex, celebrity and scandal. Every day thousands of cases involving ordinary people caught up in difficult or terrible circumstances are prosecuted and defended diligently and properly. You know nothing about them because you don’t see them or hear of them.
All any criminal barrister can ask before you take a view on whether the criminal Bar is of benefit to society and is an institution worth funding accordingly is that you ensure that your view is informed. An informed view is one that is founded on evidence not supposition, not speculation and not entertainment.
I venture to list here what independent, self-employed criminal barristers do and what they don’t.
Criminal barristers do:
- Provide independent legal advice
- Owe a paramount duty to the court
- Public speaking almost every single day against opponents
- Receive fees determined by the government in legal aid cases
- Work to very short deadlines, often overnight
- Travel long distances on an unpredictable basis
- Miss funerals, weddings & family events because of court commitments
- Pay for professional insurance, professional memberships, and an annual practising certificate fee
- Pay up to 25% income to their chambers (offices) for rent and administrative support
- Incur enormous debts during higher education & professional training (up to £60,000)
- Have to pay for a wig (£560) & gown (£149)
- Pay for and undertake Continuing Professional Development every year
- Appear in the most difficult, stressful, high profile and emotionally charged cases that come before the courts
- Undertake large amounts of pro bono (for free) work
- Provide, for free, hours of advocacy and legal training
Criminal barristers don’t:
- Lie to the court
- Invent defences
- Force defendants to plead not guilty
- Receive salaries
- Receive paid leave, sick pay, maternity/paternity pay
- Receive pensions
- Keep VAT which they are obliged to charge on their fees
- Pull ‘sickies’- ever
- Work 9-5
- Know how much they will earn in any given year
- Insult witnesses and needlessly cause them distress
- Allow financial and other considerations to subvert their duty to their client
- Hesitate to give robust, frank and sometimes unwelcome advice whether to the Crown Prosecution Service or to defendants
- Have tickets for a ‘legal aid gravy train’
- Expect gratitude or praise from the public but some small acknowledgement of their services would be welcome