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

  • 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. Protests, boycotts and legal action have so far failed to halt the cuts which continue to bite.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Partially 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 to 553,161 in 2017/18, down from 588,021 in 2016/17 and 637,798 in 2015/16. 

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.