The Criminal Bar

In a nutshell

Barristers are instructed by solicitors to provide advocacy or advice for individuals being prosecuted in cases brought before the UK’s criminal courts. Lesser offences like driving charges, possession of drugs or benefit fraud are listed in the Magistrates’ Courts, where solicitor advocates are increasingly active. More serious charges such as fraud, supplying drugs or murder go to the Crown Courts, which are essentially still the domain of barristers. Complex cases may reach the Court of Appeal or Supreme Court. A criminal set’s caseload incorporates everything from theft, fraud, drugs and driving offences to assaults of varying degree of severity, murder and rape.

Realities of the job

  • Criminal barristers must have a sense of the theatrical and of dramatic timing, but good oratory skills are only half the story. Tact, a level head and great time management skills are also important.
  • The barrister must be able to inspire confidence in clients from all walks of life.
  • Some clients can be tricky, unpleasant or scary. Some will have difficult living situations and little education, and others might be addicted to alcohol or drugs.
  • Barristers often handle several cases a day, frequently at different courts. Some of them will be poorly prepared by instructing solicitors. It is common to take on additional cases at short notice and to have to cope with missing defendants and witnesses. Stamina and adaptability are consequently a must.
  • Success rests on effective case preparation and awareness of evolving law and sentencing policies.
  • Pupils cut their teeth on motoring offences, committals and directions hearings in the Magistrates’ Courts. By the end of pupillage they should expect to be instructed in their own right and make it into the Crown Court.
  • For juniors, trials start small – offences such as common assault – and move on to ABH, robbery and possession of drugs with intent to supply.
  • It may be sexy work, but baby barrister pay on publicly-funded cases can be abysmal. Increasingly, barristers earn as little as £10,000 annually for their first year or two in practice.

Current issues

October 2023

  • In April 2022, nearly 2,500 criminal barristers went on strike in protest against low salaries. The strike ended after the Criminal Bar Association accepted a government pay increase of 15% on legal aid fees for Crown Court cases.
  • Partly as a consequence of legal aid cutbacks, many top-end criminal sets are branching out into fraud, bribery, regulatory, VAT tribunal, and professional discipline work. And despite the cuts, leading criminal chambers continue to need new pupils and tenants.  
  • The Covid-19 pandemic has had huge ramifications, including a shortage of defence lawyers and a huge number of trials being postponed. With trials suspended, criminal courts have implemented the use of digital hearings, turning the concept of open justice court on its head. The number currently sits at more than 145,000,  which is well above the pre-covid number, despite the recent reopening of courts in person.   
  • In order to help work through the ever-increasing backlog of criminal cases, the government announced the introduction of ‘Temporary Operating Arrangements’ in July. These extended operating hours have been widely condemned by those in the profession, who are concerned the new plan will push an already stretched sector to breaking point. The Criminal Bar Association have continually argued against such a scheme.  
  • The latest data from the CPS shows that the number of prosecutions has dropped more than 5% compared to the previous year. Whilst rape prosecutions have seen an increase of more than 4%, hate crime and domestic abuse prosecutions have both dropped less than 5% compared to the previous year.
  • The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic continue to be felt by the sector, with significant impacts on court proceedings. One recent interviewee pointed out that: “There was a huge impact for anyone with a heavy court-based practice. There was a period for a few months at the early stages of the pandemic where everything just got vacated or adjourned, and it took the courts quite a bit of time to get into shape with facilitating hearings over teams or whatever format they used at the time.”
  • Following Sarah Everard’s murder, the government introduced the highly controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill. Introduced to thwart criminal activity, the bill faced staunch backlash for protesting regulations. It aimed to criminalise protests deemed disturbing, too loud, or ones causing ‘serious annoyance,’ the latter of which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. The Act was enshrined in law at the end of June 2022. 
  • A recent case that shocked the nation were the murders of seven babies on a neonatal unit by nurse Lucy Letby. Heard in the Crown Court, the case has been deemed as one of the UK’s most prolific child serial killer cases of the modern day. The trial lasted for well over ten months and is one of the longest UK murder trials in UK history. Letby received a whole life sentence - she is one of only four female criminals in the UK with this conviction. 


Some tips

  • Mooting, debating and other real-life advocacy are necessary requirements before you can look like a serious applicant.
  • Criminal pupils tend to have practical smarts rather than being brainboxes with tons of awards and prizes to their names, but you still need a good degree to get your foot in the door.
  • There are many ways of getting that all-important exposure to the criminal justice system. Consider a visit to court to observe a trial.
  • Interested in prosecuting alleged criminals rather than defending them? The Crown Prosecution Service recruits 30 trainees/pupils a year. Read our True Picture feature on the CPS here.