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Putting the Law in Order: Things You Never Knew About Barristers

Posted on 19th July 2018 by Martha Greengrass

Every time you enter or leave a courtroom, you must turn and face the judge and nod a bow (but not too vigorously in case your wig falls off!).

From all-important wig etiquette to biting cuts to the justice budget, Sarah Langford - author of the acclaimed new book In Your Defence - shines a light on some of the suprising things you might not know about being a barrister.

Things you didn’t know about barristers:

If you have absolutely no idea what the difference between a barrister and a solicitor is, then you are not alone. I’ve found that few people do; I’ve even been asked the question by solicitors. Both are lawyers, but, unlike in America, their roles are different. Very simply, solicitors do all the hard grind before court - providing initial advice, taking the witness statements, negotiating, etc., - before instructing a barrister to swan in and do all the showing-off stuff in court.

A barrister’s most precious possession is not their wig and gown, their white collar or huge book of law. It is not their laptop, mobile phone or notes of evidence. It is their wheelie bag. They will have grown used to the joke ‘... been anywhere nice?’. They will have learned which rubber wheels fall apart in minutes and which will be able to carry three A4 files, a pair of shoes, a make-up bag and a packed lunch through rain and snow and across gravel and grass. And when their trusty wheelie decides it has been bumped down one railway step too many and finally breaks, they will mourn its departure like that of a friend (not least because it will be a total pain to get rid of). I have been told that my own wheelie bag has virtually become a character in my book; now you know why.

While it might be fair to describe those who practise tax, commercial, or other lucrative areas of civil law as ‘fat cats’, most criminal barristers are more a sort of skinny stray. Criminal barristers are paid from the public purse and the amount they get for each case is fixed by law, no matter how hard it is or how long it takes. Unlike the education and health budgets, the justice budget was never ring-fenced from austerity cuts. It has been cut by approximately 40 per cent in real terms since 2010. In a 2016 survey, the median take-home salary of a criminal barrister was said to be approximately £27,000. As all barristers are self-employed, this income does not include a pension, holiday pay, parental pay, or any other nice stuff. For a job which regularly requires evening and weekend working as well as full days in court, you can see why criminal barristers get a bit... squawky... when allegations of whiskers and straining stomachs are thrown about.

No one really knows why there is a flap on the back of a barrister’s black court gown (or if they do, they haven’t told me). The best explanation I’ve heard is that it is a remnant of what once was a money bag. A solicitor, sitting behind the barrister in court, had to keep putting money in the bag if they wanted them to carry on speaking, like a sort of pompous slot machine. 

Barristers rarely shake hands when they meet one another before a case starts. This is not because all of them have their hands slathered in gel sanitizer or are just plain rude. Historically, shaking hands was, it is said, a way for gentleman to show they were not armed. Barristers, however, were thought to be so gentlemanly that there was no need to prove this. Those truly in the know, however - like Helena Kennedy QC - think this is all a lot of outmoded tosh and that, if one feels like it, one should just shake away. 

While barristers often travel far and wide for a good brief, the areas in which they usually work are made up of six circuits. These are geographical areas outside London which have their own membership and leadership. You do not need to belong to a circuit to accept work in that area, but it provides you with connections, local support (and the occasional dinner) if you do. 

To become a barrister you have to join one of four Inns of Court (Lincoln’s Inn, Gray’s Inn, Middle Temple and Inner Temple). Your Inn then ‘calls you’ to the Bar. They used to be the only places where barristers could train, by practising their advocacy skills by debating over dinner. Since education in the law was formalized by the introduction of the Bar Vocational Course, they have taken on a more pastoral role, although, as well as lectures, debates and moots, the Inns still insist that in order to be called to the Bar you have to attend a minimum of twelve dinners (tough times) during which you sit, wearing your suit and robes, and follow numerous conventions and formalities, often including port. 

Every time you enter or leave a courtroom, you must turn and face the judge and nod a bow (but not too vigorously in case your wig falls off!).

Important skills every barrister who is regularly in court must master: picking up a dropped pen without your wig falling off; a poker face; running up courthouse steps without tripping on your gown; an audible bellow with which to call out your client’s name; being in earshot of the court tannoy at all times so that you don’t miss your case being called into court, with the result that the usher puts you to the bottom of the list as a punishment, meaning that your 10 a.m. hearing is not heard until 4 p.m.

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