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 2021 

  • The widely condemned and cost-saving Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 continues to wreak havoc on the sector, with hemorrhaging cuts causing half of all law centres and not-for-profit legal advice services in England and Wales to have closed since 2015, according to government figures. 
  • A hotly anticipated review into the state of legal aid was released in July. The report showed what many already knew to be true, but laid bare many stark facts about criminal and civil legal aid: both, it argues, require urgent and drastic reform. Criminal aid lawyers have explicitly expressed concerns about the sustainability of the sector, highlighting an inability to recruit and retain lawyers as a significant number join the Crown Prosecution Service due to its sustainable renumeration schemes. 
  • 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. 
  • 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. 
  • 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.  
  • 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. 
  • Following Sarah Everard’s murder this year, 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. Some communities took to the streets, with scenes in Bristol turning violent. The bill will continue its progress in the 2021-22 parliamentary session.   
  • Due to lockdown, the number of CPS prosecutions fell last year, but Q4 20/21 saw prosecutions increase by 10% compared to the same time last year.  

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.