Public Law at the Bar

In a nutshell

Centred on the Administrative Court, public law relates to the principles governing the exercise of power by public bodies. Those which most often appear as respondents in the High Court include government departments, local authorities, the prison service and NHS trusts.

Often the headline cases are challenges to central government policies like terror suspect control orders, the extradition of failed asylum seekers, secret courts and the giving of evidence anonymously. Other big-ticket work comes from public inquiries: The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse and Grenfell Tower Inquiry are two ongoing examples. However, for every (in)famous case reported in the media, there are hundreds relating to daily decisions taken by public bodies on immigration, welfare, planning and school places.

The most important process in public practice is judicial review: the Administrative Court may order that any decision made unlawfully be overturned or reconsidered. Decisions are often reviewed on the basis of the Human Rights Act 1998.

The realities of the job

  • The Administrative Court is extremely busy, so an efficient style of advocacy is vital.
  • Barristers must cut straight to the chase and succinctly deliver pertinent information, case law or statute. They need a genuine interest in the legislative process and the fundamental laws of the land.
  • A real interest in academic law is a prerequisite. Complex arguments are more common than precise answers.
  • While legal intellect is vital, public law's real world issues demand a practical outlook and an ability to stand back from the issue in question.
  • Junior barristers often hone their nascent advocacy skills at the permissions stage of judicial review in short 30-minute hearings.

Current issues

October 2020

  • In one of the most well-publicised public law cases in recent memory, the Supreme Court determined that the government could not trigger Article 50 to withdraw from the EU without first passing an Act of Parliament. The case represented a major test of government prerogative and the role of Parliament in foreign affairs, and set an important precedent. Over 50 barristers were involved in the case.
  • Brexit is likely to affect several public law fields including immigration, human rights, environment, planning and data protection. That said, while many existing rules emanate from the EU, a good chunk have been incorporated directly into UK law. The government has stated it intends to leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, so it can no longer hear English cases on appeal. The UK will remain part of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, however, as this is part of the Council of Europe not the EU.
  • After being stripped of her citizenship by then home secretary last year, the Supreme Court is set to rule on whether Shamima Begum should be allowed to return to the UK.  
  • With both the highest death rate and facing one of the deepest recessions of any country in Europe, calls for a statutory inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic are already growing.  
  • Legal issues related to counter-terrorism measures and data/surveillance have both been in the news. A case brought by Labour deputy leader Tom Watson established in early 2018 that the government's mass digital surveillance regime was unlawful, with judges ruling that the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act was 'inconsistent with EU law'. The appointment of Huawei to help build the UK's 5G mobile network provoked fresh concerns: the company's connections to the Chinese government led some to fear it could be involved in ‘spying’ and espionage, and the leaked plans led to the resignation of Gavin Williamson as defence secretary.
  • In September last year, the Supreme Court gave a landmark ruling by declaring that Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue parliament for five weeks was unlawful. The moment was a new assertion of authority of the Supreme Court.
  • An international incident occurred last year when Anne Sacoolas, a former CIA operative, fled the country claiming diplomatic immunity after killing motorist Harry Dunn when driving on the wrong side of the road. 
  • Following through on one of their 2019 manifesto promises, in July 2020 the government launched an independent panel to look at judicial reviews. Among other things, the review is specifically looking at whether the terms of Judicial Review should be written into law and whether certain executive decisions should be decided on by judges. 
  • The relationship between politics and social media remains cloudy. Vote Leave received a fine of £61,000 for breaking electoral spending laws last year; many have concerns over the firm’s links to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which resulted in Facebook being fined $5 billion as a result of not sufficiently ensuring users' privacy.

Some tips

  • The competition for public law pupillages is exceptionally fierce. Having the highest possible academic credentials is key when applying to a public law set but most successful candidates will also have impressive hands-on experience in the public or voluntary sectors.
  • Public international law is popular, but it’s an incredibly small field with few openings. Moreover, it’s dominated by sitting or ex-professors at top universities alongside Foreign Office veterans.
  • If administrative and constitutional law were not your favourite subjects you should reconsider your decision before choosing public law.