Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Justice Calls Family Enthralls

I've never been handcuffed. An unsurprising statement from a barrister you might think but more than you may guess have seen the back seat of a police car. Often people fight violently when being arrested but very often they go quietly. I've often wondered what it must feel like experiencing that immediate loss of liberty. The first time, as for many things, must be frightening and unknown but I can easily imagine how quickly 'here we go again' sets in. The sensible thing, no doubt, is to surrender. The state has taken over and you'll have to navigate the river as best you can rather than perish trying to swim against the tide.

Lockdown is not, in important and obvious respects, the same as being locked up but it is nonetheless the case, for the vast majority of people, that their liberty has been constrained in a way they will never have known before. In my case I have had the good fortune of experiencing this with my wife and children. 

It is often said of the early years that they go so fast and it has been an unexpected bounty for me that I have been able to be present all the time for these days, weeks and months with my children. But sometimes serving the sentence is not the hard part, the hard part is release and the obvious question: What now?

I am both fortunate and unfortunate in my profession. Being self-employed I am not eligible for furlough I also, however, fall outside the government's scheme to assist the self-employed. Lockdown has essentially rendered me unemployed BUT barring total cataclysm my job is not going anywhere. The administration of justice is part of the key work of society even if contempt and indifference has often felt like its reward.

Practice as a barrister is to live your life to a constant drum beat. That drum beat represents the pressure of your caseload. Sometimes it's a gentle tapping on the snare, other times it's a relentless pounding on the bass drum keeping you awake half the night or worse. The thing is it never stops but since March it has. And suddenly there was bird song and breathing and children's laughter.

The announcement of the resumption of jury trials represents a liberation from lockdown. It is extremely unclear at the moment whether this will be a meaningful return to work in the near future or months of a trickle of carefully selected cases. There are literally thousands of cases and victims, witnesses and defendants waiting to see their day in court.

It is going to be essential that the courts have careful regard to listing cases in such a way that barristers with caring responsibilities can make themselves available. The courts may also have to hope that barristers who have been fully present in their family's lives, often for the first time, want to make themselves available.

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Barred from the Bar - strait is the gate and narrow the way to pupillage

The Bar is not for everyone and not everyone is for the Bar. Ostensibly it should be heartening that there is such a profusion of candidates for pupillage but sometimes when I see the metaphorical queue round the block I feel like one of those soldiers in a war movie trudging dead eyed from the front line past springy recruits straight out of basic training.

It is a grim reality of many mini-pupillages at the Criminal Bar that as much time is spent in warning off as in pointing the way. A useful maxim for any barrister, as for anyone wanting to walk through life with clear eyes, is cui bono. In the case of the BPTC providers the answer is simple: they do. Every year they recruit vastly more students than will ever win pupillages.

For many of those students it's not just that they aren't in the race they aren't even in the stadium. And whose job is it to tell them that? The answer is it's ours. In the sift. When there are 100 applications per place there are going to be many, many disappointed people. A proper chambers will have a marking scheme (I am very much in favour of that scheme being made available to applicants) and a proper chambers should be ready to provide a rejected candidate with the result of that scheme. 

But nobody can or should expect fully fleshed career advice from that exercise. The barristers marking those applications are doing it for free in whatever time they can carve out of their practices and their domestic lives. Applying for pupillage is a very stressful experience which, at the time, may well be the most stressful experience of a candidate's life. However its stresses are but a fraction of those that bear down on you in the cells of the Old Bailey advising a client looking at decades in prison or prosecuting a multi-handed case against Silks on the war-path.

When you apply to join a criminal chambers imagine you are looking to step on board a ship in a storm from which the last lifeboats were cut away some time ago. The interview panel sitting opposite you is not screaming in your face because they've been weathering that storm for a long time and because they are professionals and because the ship isn't going anywhere without new crew. But don't be fooled by the languid elegance of the Inns of Court or anything you've ever seen on television. The Criminal Bar was in crisis BEFORE Covid turned up, God knows what it's going to look like in the aftermath.

Learning to overcome the sting of rejection in applying for pupillage is in fact a key learning experience for practice where every day someone is telling you in public that you are wrong on the facts, wrong on the law and where every case has a loser. Few boast about this on their chambers websites or in public but many barristers and judges endured multiple refusals on their way to practice. It took me three attempts to obtain a tenancy.

However saying it's a tough job for tough people is no answer. Resilience can be learnt, it can be taught and it can be fostered. Likewise nobody is immune from mental health setbacks and suffering a bout of mental illness is no disqualification from the job at all. Indeed it is likely to make for a more empathetic practitioner given the family circumstances of so many of our clients.

If you think a chambers that has rejected you is falling short don't be shy about saying so. However think carefully whether the solution is expensive and difficult or free and easy. If the former there's your answer if the latter perhaps, in missing out, you didn't miss out after all.