Want to practise at a pre-eminent police law set? Cop a load of 5 Essex Court.
Quibble with the dibble
Like the most maverick of hardboiled detectives, we strode through the doors of 5 Essex Court with certain questions to ask and limited time to get the answers. Certainly, we knew that this set is renowned for its work in the sphere of police law. But what exactly is police law? Junior barrister and member of the pupillage committee Georgina Wolfe gave us her version of events: “Most students won't know what police law is – I was the same when I was a student – but all it is is law that involves the police. We do civil work: judicial reviews, inquests, public inquiries, civil actions against the police, false imprisonment cases, malicious prosecutions, misfeasance of public office cases and police discipline. I personally think it's one of the most exciting areas you can practise in, not least because of all the different fora you can appear in – there are even jury trials, which is unusual in the civil sphere.”
Hang on, a civil jury trial? What does that look like? “It could be something like a wrongful arrest case over false imprisonment: someone saying they shouldn't have been arrested for a particular offence. Officers can be called to give evidence and so there might well be a jury.” Got it. The special thing about 5 Essex Court is that “the work is almost always very interesting and has real implications for national policing and security,” Wolfe tells us. “You also feel like you're doing something good for mankind – by acting for the police you have the opportunity to redress wrongs that have happened in the past.” And 5EC's members have been involved in cases and inquests related to some of the gravest acts of police wrongdoing in recent history: the Hillsborough inquests, the case on the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, the inquiry into historic child sex abuse and the Leveson inquiry among them. The set also does other human rights and public law work with the government as a client – many senior members are on the panel of what used to be called the Treasury Solicitor's Department and is now the Government Legal Department. Police work accounts for around 60% of 5EC's undertakings. In addition, some members specialise in employment and personal injury.
"Because we're small, there's a much better development process."
Senior clerk Mark Waller tells us that while the set is looking to grow, there's a clear limit on numbers. “I know all of my 42 barristers very very well,” he says. “When you get to 60 or 70 barristers then you can't: it's physically impossible. Here, because we're small, there's a much better development process. The clerk helps see a barrister through the process from pupillage to, hopefully, silk. It's a bit like having children and seeing them grow up!” Any new chicks in the nest “have to be the right fit” and that involves having the right attitude towards clients, says Waller. “For example, on Proceeds of Crime Act cases, where the police seize money from someone they think is up to no good, officers take it really personally. If the barrister loses in court, the officer feels like they are writing a personal cheque. So when barristers have a 'don't care' attitude – 'it's only a POCA, it's only 500 quid' – that's the kiss of death. Winning or losing doesn't matter. The client needs to feel that their barrister really cares and is determined to fight for them.”
Put out that red light
Up to two pupils are taken on each year and they spend four months with three different supervisors. “Your work reflects your supervisor's practice,” a pupil tells us. “My first stint was heavily about police law, civil actions and inquests, with a bit of personal injury. My supervisor would give me the papers for a case she'd done before and I'd go through them and write an advice or a defence. Then she'd give me feedback and show me her version.” The same source continued: “I'm now with a member who does mainly employment law and my third supervisor will be someone specialising in immigration.”
"Then I turn up and do the advocacy.”
After six months, pupils are on their feet handling their own matters too. “I do small civil applications at the Magistrates' and County Courts, like domestic violence protection orders and football banning orders.” On cases like these, “I get the papers the day before – or if I'm very lucky two weeks before – and check over everything because inevitably there's a problem: there was a case last week where they'd put in the name of the wrong chief constable. After I've worked out whether anything needs action on the spot, I then assess the case and write an opening note on what the strength of the evidence is. Then I turn up and do the advocacy.” Our source continued: “Cases vary a lot – sometimes the magistrate or district judge will be totally blasé about it and just say, 'That'll do,' and at other times it'll be contested and go to a full trial.”
Pupils may also work on closure orders seeking to shut down premises in which “people are engaging in disorderly, criminal or offensive behaviour” – like brothels and crack houses. “Yesterday when I was printing out a case file there were all these pictures of transsexual prostitutes in it. I had to insist it was for work!” guffawed one pupil. Meanwhile, paperwork for false imprisonment cases involves “weird specialised torts which are incredibly arcane. You look them up, try and master them and write an advice, which is very difficult at first but it gets easier as you go along.” In terms of hours, there's firmly a culture of working 9am to 6pm as a pupil. “Initially your supervisors will try to kick you out at 6pm, but when you're in your second six you manage your own time – I'll be working this weekend, but only because this is a strange time and my tenancy application is due in soon.”
Warm and fuzzy
Ah, tenancy. How is the big decision made? There aren't any formal advocacy tests but all work pupils do for their supervisors is taken into account. Fortunately, the first three months are “a safe space to make those inevitable mistakes,” says Georgina Wolfe. Supervisors submit a report on their charge and, when the time comes, pupils make an application in which they "give examples of their advocacy and advisory work and what they learnt from it. They also have to answer an ethical question.” Members “complete a questionnaire explaining what they think of the candidate and then a recommendation is made to chambers.” In the end, one of the set's two pupils gained tenancy in 2016.
"See how people think and put together an argument.”
Initial applications for pupillage are made via the Gateway. Around 30 applicants are picked for a first-round interview, involving a legal problem and questions on current legal issues “to see how people think and put together an argument.” Ten are chosen for the second round – involving an advocacy exercise – before which there's a drinks party, “which is not trial by beer!” we're assured. “It's genuinely an opportunity to ask us questions and see us in a social context.” Still, best not to get totally smashed. (“Somebody fainted in my year,” a current pupil confided.) Helpfully, 5EC publishes a detailed report on its website about its annual application round, giving lots of detail about what impresses in response to questions. Go check it out.
So what type of person is likely to fit in here? “5 Essex Court is known for being friendly and there's a reason for that,” smiled a pupil. Sure enough, most sets trot out the usual phrases, declaring that they're friendly, open and not full of dour-faced boffins. Happily, we can confirm that this chambers is a genuinely affable place to spend some time – we were given a quite lengthy tour of the building by the ebullient Georgina Wolfe and introduced to plenty of charming members, some of whom were fresh from attending the very serious Deepcut inquest, while others chirped away merrily about early pupillage mishaps. The proof is in the pudding, or the pupil – imperious windbags need not apply.
There's a strong female presence here – Fiona Barton QC is head of chambers and three of the seven silks are women.
5 Essex Court
5 Essex Court,
- No of silks 7
- No of juniors 34
- No of pupils 1
- Contact Georgina Wolfe, (020) 7410 2000
- Method of application Pupillage Gateway
- Pupillages (pa) up to two 12-month pupillages
- % of pupils offered tenancy (2016) 50%
Types of work undertaken