Monday, 29 January 2007

No room at the inn

For "inn" read "prison" where, as we all know, there is currently very little room indeed! Over the past few days, John Reid's letter to judges "reminding" them only to imprison dangerous offenders where possible has been the subject of much discussion. It has also provided us with another useful line to trot out in mitigation - just as the ones about defendants' girlfriends being pregnant and them having made real efforts to wean themselves off the smack were wearing a bit thin! Despite the odd story about paedophiles walking free, none of the judges I've been in front of in the last few days seem to be doing things any differently. And quite right, too! Leaving aside the questions of why we in the UK have such a staggeringly high percentage of our population behind bars and how we can reduce crime, why should people receive markedly different punishments for the same kind of offence depending on whether the prisons are a bit cramped the week they happen to be in court? Judges have little enough discretion in sentencing these days without having to bear in mind the lack of available prison space.

On the subject of available prison space, due to over-crowding at a local men's prison the adjacent women's prison was closed down recently in order to provide extra accommodation for male prisoners. "But what of all the female prisoners?" I hear you ask. Well, last week I represented a young woman who had been awaiting sentence in custody. Due to the closure of the women's prison, which was around an hour away from the court, she (along any other women remanded or sentenced by that court) was in a prison almost three hours away. Unsurprisingly, this prison is also very crowded, in part due to the extra people it is now having to accommodate. So altogether she spent the best part of six hours in a prison van, just for a 15 minute hearing. Apart from the issue of how she will cope with serving her sentence too far away for her family to visit her, just imagine what it costs to ferry prisoners around over such distances. Still, at least the male prison isn't critically over-crowded anymore, so I suppose shifting the problem elsewhere will mean some department will be able to chalk the whole sorry affair up as a success.

Friday, 26 January 2007


Hello and welcome to my brand new blog. As well as legal issues which make the media, I'll also be having my two-pence-worth on life in general, thus giving readers a fascinating insight into the day-to-day existence of the Legal Beagle. But first, for those not fortunate to be involved in legal circles, a little general information about one of our noblest professions - yes, that's right - that of the barrister...

We are self-employed advocates who are instructed by solicitors to represent clients. Thankfully, most of us aren't directly available to the general public, though that may well change in the future. Most of us at the Criminal Bar undertake work for both the CPS (Crown Prosecution Service, of which more later...) and defence solicitors. Though we are self-employed we group together in Chambers where we are managed by our clerks. Our clerks control our diaries, bill our fees and generally boss us about. Technically, they are our employees, but a barrister crosses a clerk at his or her peril.

To qualify as a barrister, you need to complete either a law degree or another degree followed by a conversion course, then the Bar Vocational Course (BVC). You then need to find a pupillage, which is basically a year-long apprenticeship in a Chambers. Competition for pupillages is fairly fierce. Once you finish pupillage, you have to secure a tenancy, which is a place in a Chambers from which to work.

When people find out that you are or are trying to become a barrister, they invariably all ask the same questions. So here they are, along with brief answers:

Q - Were you a solicitor before becoming a barrister?
A - No. (People sometimes switch from one to the other, but they are different jobs.)

Q - How can you defend people when you know they're guilty?
A - You can't. (People never believe us when we say this, but it's true. Also, they never ask how you can prosecute somebody you suspect is innocent, but there we go.)

Q - Do you wear a wig?
A - Yes.

Q - Do you have to be really clever to be a barrister?
A - No. Though many of us are.

Q - Don't barristers earn loads of money?
A - It depends. Junior criminal barristers certainly do not. Chancery and commercial practitioners often do.

There endeth the crash course in the Bar. I promise future posts will be more interesting. So please come back soon.