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 2020

  • Reflecting the dire state of the Criminal Bar, criminal barristers voted overwhelmingly to stage a walkout in July 2019. The shutdown was narrowly avoided as the government soon responded with a promise to increase prosecution fees and accelerated reviews into the state of affairs led by the CPS and Ministry of Justice.
  • Legal aid cuts have hit the number of available criminal instructions and barristers' remuneration hard. A study by Amnesty International showed that the year before the cuts came in, legal aid was granted in 925,000 cases; the year after, that number was down to just 497,000.
  • The legal aid crisis has hit the junior end particularly hard with fewer and fewer entry-level tenancies up for grabs. The dire state of the criminal justice system has been documented in an anonymously penned book, The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and How It's Broken. Some barristers can earn just £50 a day.
  • The Covid-19 pandemic has had huge ramifications, including a shortage of defence lawyers and a huge number of trials being postponed; some have been pushed back as far as 2022. With trials suspended, criminal courts have implemented the use of digital hearings, turning the concept of open justice court on its head. A whopping 550,000 or so cases currently await court time.
  • Litigants in person are an increasingly common sight in both the civil and criminal courts as a result of legal aid cuts, meaning less work for barristers and a challenge for those who appear opposite them.
  • 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 number of CPS prosecutions fell once again to 458,059 in 2019/20, down from 494,811 in 2018/19 and 553,161 in 2017/18 and 588,021. 389,009 cases progressed to magistrates' courts, while the number of cases sent to a Crown Court trial rose from the previous year to 69,088.

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.