Tag Archives: legal aid

The Unmentionable Fee

In my previous post about the AGFS consultation I promised I had more thoughts to share about it. And whether you want them or not, here are some more of those thoughts….

If you spend any time hanging around robing rooms (and thanks to floating trials and/or it being a cheaper way of keeping warm on a winter’s day I tend to spend a lot of time hanging around in robing rooms) then you will hear some common complaints from criminal practitioners. We complain a lot about not being paid for the second day. We moan about doing mentions for free. We really moan about paying people to do our mentions in other court centres whilst we do the second day of a trial for no additional payment. And never ask counsel how much they are being paid for a sentence hearing. 

I have no doubt that the working group who had input into the draft scheme had these sort of moans very much in mind. And they have tried to rectify them. Again it is important to remember that this is moving money around the pot. So the money for the second day’s refresher sees brief fees reduced. The current brief fee included an amount for the second day and fairly directly the money has now been split into two. Which is morale boosting to know that your second day does actually attract its own reward but is one of the reasons why we now look at the fee for the first day, the brief fee, and say “really?” That has a definite knock on effect when it comes to cracked trial fees but that is a whole separate blog (I bet you can’t wait).

It is proposed to pay for the first six standard hearings in a case under the new scheme. We are told that it is only a very small number of cases that have more ancillary hearings that this. I must confess it is not entirely clear how exactly the seventh mention should be remunerated, save for the fact that it is going to come out of the graduated fee, albeit at no specified rate. 

I would suggest that mentions for the purposes of onward remands which are required by statute should be remunerated as being outside the standard appearance regime (including hearings related to custody time limit applications). 

But at least we are getting paid for those first six standard appearances. That should silence the moaning mention miseries in the robing room. We are going to get £60 a pop. Which is nice. 

It is not, however, as nice as the £100 we got for such hearings in April 2007. Or the £96 we got in April 2010. Or the £91 we got in April 2011. Or the £87 that we have been paid for such hearings since April 2012. I know the pot is staying the same but that kind of feels like a pay cut. In fact it looks like a pay cut. It sounds like a pay cut. And it is a pay cut for the Junior Bar who are not swanning around picking up brief fees left right and centre but will, in the early days, often only do “standard appearances” for days on end. It is a pay cut based upon cut upon cut. 

I know that junior practitioners will do mentions and standard appearances for days on end because that is what I did when I was first on my feet. And I was getting £45 per mention back then so at least £60 is a bit of an improvement. Except it isn’t. Because I did my first £45 mention in 1993. And in today’s money that equates to £64.09. So I am getting paid less for those standard appearances than when I was a pupil. That is time travel that Doc and Marty McFly would be impressed by. 

I am not dependent on standard appearances for my income but for the very most junior it will be an important part of their income. And it is being slashed to the bone here. And serves as a perfect example for the general depletion of fees over the years. 

This is not the fault of those from the Bar Council, the CBA and the Circuits who have tried to come up with a better scheme. This is a result of the fact that those who control the overall level of fees have cut and cut again. This latest redistribution of the pot only serves to highlight that we are trying to stretch a sandwich sized piece of cling film over a football pitch. Every time we try to adequately cover one square inch we expose acres. 

The £60 mention fee, less than we were being paid 24 years ago, simply highlights that they stated intentions of the scheme – to provide payment that matches work and feeds the young barrister – is impossible to achieve if the size of the pot remains the same. 

Once upon a time, Andrew Langdon QC tweeted “And what we need to do is work together in resisting dual contracts and winning a rise in the summer of 2015”. He is now Chairman of the Bar. Dual contracts are in the long grass with most of Grayling’s output. But it is now heading towards the spring of 2017. Our voices of complaint should not be against those who have worked hard to design a modern scheme that reflects how evidence is served. Our voices of complaint should echo what the Chairman had to say in in that Tweet in March 2014. 

If the Government want a sustainable scheme, if they want the cost savings that removing PPE undoubtedly bring, then they should reward our contribution to the design of the scheme with more money. It is plain and simple. We should not work at these rates. 

So answer the consultation. Make your suggestions. But I respectfully suggest that your submissions should make the case for more money. And that you begin to press those in positions of inlfuence, power and organisational control to make the case with you. And to invite such people, those who lead our profession, to be in a position to lead us in a fight to obtain proper remuneration, with everything that entails. 

Pots, Pages and Pay

I have now read the entire consultation on fees. I have cogitated and calculated. I have some views to express (which is a good job or else the starting of a blog would have been a pretty pointless exercise). My thoughts have been concerning the figures in the boxes and the execution of parts of the scheme. In this blog I am going to deal with problem under which those shaping the scheme have had to labour – there is no new money. Fees that were set for cases many moons ago, fees that have been subsequently reduced, are still being paid at the same, reduced rate.  

It is also undoubtedly the case that the current AGFS remunerates some cases in an inadequate manner. There are times when you do a case and then see the bill. You do a double take. Surely there has been some mistake in the calculation of the fee? Surely all that work and worry must be worth more than this? 

There are those at the Bar who are canny and dodge the under-paying cases. There are those of us who think “never again”, right up to the next time you take on a similar case. The long and the short of it is that there are winners and losers when it comes to a fee scheme that pays by the piece rather than by the work put into the piece. 

When it comes to designing a scheme that is based on the same size pot, there are always going to be cases where payment goes down if money is shifted to other parts of the scheme. It is impossible to do it otherwise. 

In my opinion it is the inescapable truth that Silks are not paid enough for murders under the AGFS. I find it impossible to argue otherwise. It is right that these fees should be increased. The increase in these fees should come from extra money being paid into the scheme. The scheme under current consideration requires that the money comes from elsewhere within the scheme. And that means fees for other cases are going to be decreased. 

And here you have the point of tension. No one likes the idea of a pay cut. Those that see themselves as being the losers in this equation are going to cry foul. That is entirely understandable. 

I am not a Silk. I have never applied for Silk. I have no intention to apply for Silk in the next application round. I am a junior that does the occasional drugs conspiracy with a decent page count. I do some fraud type work. So I am going to be in a position where future fees may be reduced. I also do a fair amount of sex cases so I could see some fees increase. And no matter what it means for me, I can see that Silks are not properly remunerated for some murders at the present time. 

The information that accompanies the consultation indicates that the Silks’ slice of the pie is going to increase by 10%. This does not mean every Silk in the land is going to get a 10% pay increase. This does not mean that every Silk’s fee in every case is going to go up. It does not mean that there are no situations where a Silk is going to end up being paid less. It also means that, in some cases, a Silk is going to end up getting paid more than 10% extra on the current fee. But this 10% thing strikes me as a bit of public relations disaster for the new scheme. It makes it very difficult to sell to the rank and file. That 10% is coming from somewhere and it is coming from the fees paid to the junior bar. So I know that a fee increase for Silks is the right thing to happen. It is just that there is not a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. 

It may have been easier if just a little bit of the extra money for Silks (produced by a formula explained within the consultation) had just been moderated slightly and the extra money put back into the fees that are being most significantly reduced (paper heavy fraud and drugs). It would have sugared the pill if it was the case that the consultation told us that the formula had worked out that the Silks should have been put up by more but that this figure had been adjusted due to the fact that the fees were being cut elsewhere and that the reduction would therefore be less. 

Of course this is a consultation. I am entitled to make that point. I am not arguing that Silks should not have some of their fees increased. I am arguing that, when the money in the pot is too little to begin with, such adjustments as are necessary should be dealt with not only by way of formula but also by way of sensitivities. 

I am not convinced that one can argue against the removal of page counts per se. It is a clumsy tool by which the seriousness of a case or the work involved is calculated. It worked better when it was first introduced, when it was used to differentiate between cases within a relatively small compass. But as page counts got bigger and the page count payments got extended to thousands rather than hundreds of pages it became less of an accurate measure of a case and more of a lottery in which you hoped for lots of pages on the PPE and a case summary that spoke of only one witness naming your client.

If you are to argue about the numbers in the boxes, it cannot just be by the slogan “save our PPE”. It cannot simply be by the cry that this time round your practice profile is going to mean you are in the column of fees being reduced. If any one wants to make the case why the figures in the boxes are wrong then I am more than happy to host any blogs on the subject. But I also repeat this request – those are argue that the figures in the boxes are right need to release more information to us. The Bar Council, the Circuits and the CBA need to provide us with information. Quickly. 

I will post another blog soon about one or two areas of detail in the proposed scheme. 

Those Pesky Silks

Have you ever been sitting in the robing room and witnessed one of those exchanges between opponents where Prosecution counsel tells Defence counsel something that the police have done and Defence counsel flies off the handle? So you get lots of “outrageous!” exclamations interspersed with “abuse of process” laced with “prosecutorial misconduct” as Prosecution counsel tries to finish her sentence. Off flounces the Defence barrister in high dudgeon. Fast forward four days and you are still in the same chair in the robing room (probably waiting for the same floater to get on) and you realise the trial in which they were involved has reached the stage when the jury went out. Whatever the first, intemperate, reaction there was no foul play; the process cured any prejudice, should there have been any. 

We learn valuable lessons in life. I learn them from exchanges like that. I also learned one from the time of the infamous “Deal”. The lesson I learned there was that the mistake made by the CBA was not in striking the “Deal” but in doing so without a chance for the membership to have their say. Ultimately I was on the wrong side of that argument, but I was allowed my place in the process, albeit belatedly. 

So we now have the proposed consultation on a new payment scheme for advocacy in the Crown Court. And there have been a lot of instant reactions to it. I am yet to get to grips with the detail of the scheme, certainly in terms of the numbers in the boxes. The important thing is that this is a consultation document, not a final scheme. 

When I have mentioned this on Twitter some have responded by saying “History shows us how the MoJ do not listen to consultation responses…” I would respectfully disagree. History shows us that they may well be prepared to listen to responses on the detail of things. Back in the days of the Transforming Legal Aid consultations the “Next Steps” sequel was the consultation in which the proposals had been refined to take into account some of the concerns raised. I appreciate that we were not listened to across the board, but remember this consultation is not about a headline grabbing policy like BVT. This is all about the detail of a scheme. And this is your opportunity to have your say about the detail.

What you say about the detail is entirely a matter for you. I imagine, however, that a response which just says “This is a pay increase for the Silks, arranged by the Silks, at the expense of the Juniors and we are getting sold down the river like we did in the Deal” will not achieve much in the way of change. And it lacks a certain degree of rational thought. 

I was dead against the Deal. But it is history now. Quite ancient history. And has about as much to do with this proposed scheme as…let’s say, the solicitors revised protocols on dealing with new cases at the new Legal Aid rates. 

The reason why I say it lacks a degree of rational thought is because the Working Group that has been (as the name suggests) working on this scheme has not been some Bond like committee of super villains exclusively made up of Silks meeting in the CBA’s secret volcano bunker. It has comprised a cross section of the Bar, including Juniors of a wide range of call and this scheme is, in part, a product of their work. Their honest and freely given endeavour. Please do not fall into the trap of lamenting the avaricious Silks who have the ear of the Government. In doing that you are insulting many a fellow Junior that was worked on this scheme. And you are falling into the very worst of the Daily Mail style traps. 

Disagree about the detail. Do not rely upon a lazy “s’not fair” attack.

And that is very much the point. We all need to not rely upon the fact that the Circuit Leaders back it, that the CBA back it, that the YBC back it or that we take as read the good intentions of the Working Group. We all need to look at the detail. To inform ourselves of what is being proposed with, perhaps, less concern about how it has been proposed. 

So we need information. I note that, once again, Martin Chalkley has been crunching the numbers on behalf of the Bar Council. Such numbers will show why it is that this scheme is cost neutral. I anticipate that it may provide great detail about the impact it will have upon “baskets” of typical grad fees. We need that sort of information and I encourage the Bar Council and the CBA to release such detail as they have and as soon as they can. We cannot have too much information when it comes to our livelihoods and the future of remuneration. 

The detail is required because it takes more that just working out how much one case would pay under the old scheme versus the new scheme. It requires people knowing the impact it will have on them,  not on their best paying case but on every case. 

And the CBA, The Circuit Leaders and the Bar Council cannot rely upon “And so we pronounce it good, therefore it is good” to convince the masses in the style of religious leaders of yore. Where there is detailed concern, we need them to respond, to help us understand. I see that someone tweeted me last night with the figures that a Silk may now receive £37K for a 3 week murder where previously they received £17K. If that is right, I would like to know the thinking behind it. What the leadership must not do is retreat to the secret volcano bunker and adopt a siege mentality. If the rank and file are concerned it is no surprise. Allay their fears, do not dismiss them. 

I can see flaws in the scheme, as I perceive them. I will take time to think them through. For example I can see a problem with the definition of a cracked trial being reliant on the defence CoR. I anticipate that I will blog further on the detail (not that I suggest anyone should care, it just helps me stay sane). 

In looking at the detail though I will do so with one thought in my mind. There is no new money. My ire is not going to be directed at those who are trying to make this pot more equitably divided, even if I believe they have failed in that task. My ire will always be directed at those who choose to underfund the system. 


To the Manor Born

I have not written this blog. This comes from Ian West from the frozen North. I have known Ian for many years due to our shared “interest” in remuneration issues. He has always been committed to achieving fair and appropriate remuneration. 

The views expressed in this piece are Ian’s views. His Twitter name is at the end of this blog so feel free to direct any comments his way! As they are not my views I should point out that I do not share the same view as Ian over some of the issues he raises. He has, however, asked me to host this blog and I am only too happy to do so. Remuneration and the mechanisms of remuneration are important issues. As ever there is a need for wide debate. 


The new Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme: To the Manor Born?
This week, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) published its consultation paper ‘Reforming the Advocates Graduated Fee Scheme’. The scheme has been being worked on by representatives of the Bar Council, the CBA, and (until they walked out in protest) the Law Society with officials from the MoJ for many months. Here is the link to the consultation paper: https://consult.justice.gov.uk/digital-communications/reforming-the-advocates-graduated-fee-scheme/ If you are a criminal barrister or solicitor advocate you need to read it and respond. What follows are my personal, and, of necessity, preliminary views.

The structure of the scheme, in summary, is to largely do away with the proxies of pages of prosecution evidence (PPE) and prosecution witnesses (PW) as components of the graduated fee, and instead to attempt to reflect the work needed to be done on a case by replacing the current 11 offence codes, A – K, with 16 new categories, 1 (homicide) to 15 (regulatory offences) plus a ‘residual’ category 16 (‘standard cases’). Categories 1 – 15 would have within them, sub-categories to reflect different levels of complexity/seriousness within the offence type. Thus, there would be 42 separate levels of ‘basic fee’. In addition, there would be separate fees for up to six ancilliary hearings – PTPH, sentence, etc – and the second day of trial would be paid, unlike at present. So far so good. The architecture will, I am sure, get high marks from all advocates. The scheme is said to be ‘cost neutral’ from a baseline of 2014-15 spend, so the objective is said to be to make advocates’ pay ‘fairer’. There is no mechanism for review and upgrading of fees, but that flaw is not the main object of this piece.
The devil is in the detail – the ‘numbers in the boxes’. Here, I regret to say, the scheme fails the vast majority of criminal advocates – in fact, all but that 10% of them who are QCs. The silks will get a pay rise – a substantial one – whilst juniors at all levels will struggle to maintain parity, and most will suffer (yet another) pay cut. The MoJ has done some worked examples in Annex 3 which show this, but you will probably have done some from your own practice. Two questions, therefore. How, and Why?
The ‘How’ is simple – see the ‘indicative fee table’ in Annex 2. Every fee for a QC – basic and refresher – is twice that of a junior doing the same case, whether that junior is doing the case him or herself, or is being led by the QC – so a 100% ‘silk uplift’. This is, for QCs, a marked improvement on the tables in the current AGFS, where the silk uplift is either 75% or 80%, depending on the disposal – trial/plea/crack. And, of course, the higher basic and refresher fees are paid in the ‘top’ categories, such as 1 (homicide) and 2 (terrorism) i.e. the cases that QCs generally do. So, for silks, ‘double-bubble’!
Why? Juniors may well ask. The cynical ones, including the 90% of juniors who will never be QCs, may answer: because the scheme was, by and large, negotiated on behalf of the bar by… wait for it, QCs. So what have the bar’s leaders said about the scheme? Andrew Langdon, Bar Chair (and criminal silk) said: “These proposals… go a considerable way towards restoring career progression…” The Circuit Leaders, and former leaders, issued a statement saying that the scheme “..promotes quality in advocacy and encourages talented young people to practice in criminal law.” 
This sounds to some juniors (and the Law Society, which has attacked the proposals) like special pleading – “We QCs need to be paid more, and you less, in order to encourage you to become QCs yourselves.” But are young barristers going to be attracted into criminal work which for most will be a diet of ‘standard cases’ by the prospect of ‘jam tomorrow’ – the chance that they might one day reach the Elysian fields of silk? One suspects not. So is it all bad news for juniors? No, some cases will pay better, and the separate fee for the second day of trials, and ancillary hearings is a welcome step. 
But the question remains why should the scheme, which presents the opportunity to redistribute the legal aid ‘pot’ fairly to all criminal advocates, be skewed towards silks? Simple economics would say that it does not. Is there a shortage of silks? No – the relative scarcity of silk certificates means that there are more silks than there is work for some of them. Is there a shortage of applicants for silk? No – the competition is fierce. The fact is, that on a supply and demand analysis – which a conservative government might find compelling – there is absolutely no justification for a silk uplift of anywhere near the 100% proposed. If it were reduced to 25%, or even nil, and the higher pay would simply attach to the seriousness of the case, and not the category of advocate, there would still be more criminal silks than we need, and good and busy juniors would still apply for silk to do the better work, and for the lifestyle change. And, of course, it would allow the money to be spread more equitably for everyone.
So my verdict on the scheme is that the scheme is, like the curate’s egg, good in parts. But it is, as the fees tables presently stand, seriously unfair to juniors, i.e. the vast majority of the bar, and unduly, and unnecessarily, favourable to QCs. I have no doubt that my views, thus expressed, will attract the accusation that I am being divisive. But who is doing the division – the ones who designed the scheme and feathered their own nests, or the ones who complain about it? 
Ian West, Fountain Chambers, Middlesbrough.

Follow me on Twitter: @ianswest.

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One Wheel on My Waggon

“Tell me why, I don’t like Mondays?” implored Bob Geldof and his rats.

The unlikely answer is because he and the rats were barristers from Boomtown Chambers. They had come to hate Mondays because they knew that Mondays were the embodiment of the problems that beset the criminal justice system.

I know how they feel. Recent Mondays have not been kind to me. Not that how my Mondays pan out really matters in the grand scheme of things. The problem is that recent Mondays have been rather unkind to victims, witnesses and defendants. I would go so far as to say they have been cruel to (and I am now going to use a phrase so beloved by our politicians) ordinary, decent people. 

Let us make like Marty McFly and do a little time travel. Hop aboard the Delorean that is my diary for the last month. The first Monday of the month had me scheduled to prosecute a drug trial. This is a little humblebrag, this was not a couple of street deals, this was a delivery of wholesale amounts of drugs. There was a hiccup in the week before the trial when it turned out my opponent was over running in his current trial and we all agreed that the trial could go back a day to the Tuesday. The Court demanded that the case be listed before a Judge for this application so along we all trooped for the Judge and the Listing Officer to confer and announce that the Court could accommodate the case if it was pushed back by a day. 

So the calendar ticked round to Monday. 5pm on Monday to be precise. That was when the call came – case pulled from the list for lack of court time. 

The call was so late that the CPS were not able to react to it. All the officers were at court the following day, including one officer that had travelled from London. So I had quite an audience to watch me mention the case and refix the trial for March 2017. 

“Hush your moaning,” I hear you say, “this is one of life’s little blows. Roll with the punches.”

The following Monday found me boarding a train at an hour which usually finds me in bed. I rattled through some spectacular English scenery. I rolled into a different city, grateful for the fact that my bag contained only iPads and laptops rather than all the files usually needed for a three week fraud. Later in the day I reversed my journey having popped into court for a grand total of about five minutes. Our Judge was part heard with his trial from the previous week for the whole of the Monday. And, so it turned out, quite a bit of the Tuesday too. 

This one is, I admit, a personal moan. This does not impact on ordinary, decent people just odd, indecent people like me. As every barrister will know no jury sworn on the Monday meant no significant fee paid for the day. In fact my fee did not cover my train fare. 

As it happened that trial went short for other reasons. Fear not, dear reader, I had a trial in my diary for the next Monday so the mortgage was still going to be paid. Can you see what is coming? My trial on the Monday did not happen. Listing pulled it on the Friday evening. Which was a bit of a sickener for me, but probably even worse for the witness who was due to travel to court in the North West from the South East coast. 

It would, would it not, be incredible bad luck for a fourth Monday on the trot to go wrong? So this Monday was to see me once again in a far flung court to conduct a trial. I was going to be accompanied by two other members of my chambers on a bit of a chambers outing to co-defend. And I suppose that, at least, made the job of the Listing Officer a tad easier on the Friday evening, as he only had one set of chambers to call and say that the trial had been put back by a day. 

So yesterday saw three members of my chambers, all self-employed people, sitting idle. Being idle allowed the three of us plenty of time to share our thoughts via text and email when our clerk was told that the case was not going to be heard on Tuesday either and we had now been pushed back to the Wednesday. So the three of us are at a loose end today too, like a barristerial version of Last of the Summer Wine. 

This is not just a case of lunaediesophobia. Cases get pulled every day of the week. And it isn’t just me. The third Monday in this little trot of bad luck saw four trials pulled in the same court centre. So what is causing this?

On one of the rare recent days when I actually went to court and did a case I found myself in a room in the court building. In that room was one of those trolley things that people use to transport great piles of files and boxes into the building. The trolley had a sign attached to it that read “Do Not Use. Flat Tyre.” Underneath the prohibition on use was the fact that the fault had been reported to the necessary authorities……in October 2015. And there it was, tyre still flat and not fit for its intended use. 

But perfect as a metaphor for the criminal justice system. We are running on a flat tyre. 

Due to my recent experiences of cases being delayed, pulled or evaporating I have been keeping a keener eye on the lists of recent times. And I have noticed a plethora of lists that look like this….

….or this……


This is replicated across the nation. I went through the lists for court centres that I know. On Monday mornings you will see Court Centres that have eight courtrooms are only using three of them. Buildings that could accommodate ten Judges have five sitting. Large cities will have five courtrooms occupied and nine sitting vacant, whilst having three floating trials. 

This is not a case for closing these buildings. The fact is that we have more than enough work to fill them and perhaps reduce the delay from offence to trial that can often be two years. The answer lies not in allowing defendants to plead to speeding cases online, that is not going to allow the sex case to be heard any earlier. It is not the answer to allow vulnerable victims to be cross-examined early in the proceedings, that is just going to clog up more courtrooms. 

The answer is more Judges. The problem lies in the fact that Courts suffer a lack of full time Judges and are not allowed to fill the gaps by utilising Recorders (part time Judges) with sufficient advanced planning. Judges have told me in open court that the reason why cases are not being reached is because, as is shown in the list for “Court 1” above, a Recorder has not been allocated. What is happening is that an email will wing its way around potential Recorders with only a few days of notice. So often the email will be seeking Recorders to sit a whole week, or two weeks or even three weeks, with less than a week’s notice. It is no surprise when there are no takers. One would expect Recorders to be amongst the busier members of the professions. And their diaries only collapse at the last minute, when their trial is pulled because no one else has answered the call to sit at such short notice. 

I would hazard a guess that every senior criminal judge knows that the delays in the CJS are nothing short of a scandal. I would like to think that they know they have the accommodation capacity to deal with more cases. I am confident that they know with the deployment of more part time Judges more trials could start every single Monday of every single month. Instead of banging the drum for pleading guilty when we do not know the nature of the evidence, the senior judiciary should be looking at the evidence of the lists and banging the drum for more resources that would allow better forward planning. When one cannot get a case into the courtroom, it is nothing short of embarrassing to see the championing of a mobile video link van. 

Like the trolley with the flat tyre that was reported nearly a year ago, nothing will happen unless someone takes responsibility for change. That is not something I can do, it is not something the CBA can do. It is something only achievable by those who can use their independence from humdrum politics to make the case that the system is failing society. It takes the people at the very top to be honest about the problems we face and to be realistic about the solutions. It takes advocacy on behalf of a system that is central to our society, advocacy which is conducted without fear or favour. Advocacy that is conducted by those who are entrusted with the privilege of ensuring that justice is done within our courtrooms.  

A Game With No Rules

Twenty-three years ago I commenced pupillage. It is a good job that this is being written on an iPad so the solitary tear that has just dropped from my eye has not smudged the ink. Twenty-three years ago! Where has that time gone?

I have less hair on my head and more hair on my face (more of that later). I have moved from being pupil to pupil master to three pupils, all of whom it has been a privilege and a pleasure to supervise. And yet I can recall the fear and trepidation of pupillage like it was yesterday. 

Pupillage is the strangest experience. It is part interview, part trial by endurance and part learning experience. You want to appear like you know everything so you impress and yet you do not want to come across as a know-it-all. And, of course, the reality is that you are at the bottom of an incredibly steep learning curve. You feel like Eddie the Eagle when he first stood at the bottom of the 70 metre ski jump. You are entering some weird game where everybody else knows the rules except you and, just to make things more complicated, virtually every barrister you will encounter will have their own variations on those rules. 

My beard is the embodiment of that miasma of unwritten conventions that you may transgress. I was struggling to obtain pupillage. A barrister I spoke to suggested I shaved my beard off. The very next, clean shaven, pupillage interview secured my first six. Coincidence? Well I grew my beard back when I started pupillage and was asked in the first week “Did you have that beard when the PTC interviewed you?” by a senior Silk in chambers. Off came the beard again for my pupil master to say “Glad to see the facial hair has gone, Gavin” (whilst clearly forming a view on the goatee, my pupil master always struggled with my name). 

Was this pognophobia limited to my first chambers? I went four years into tenancy (in the chambers where I did my second six with a pupil master who remembered my name and knows more about advocacy than I ever will) sporting a freshly shaved chin every single day. Then I had to have some time off to have an operation and back came the beard (I reassure you that it was no longer a goatee). The reaction of a Silk in chambers on my first day back at work was to point to my chin and utter the words “Hopefully that is just temporary…”

Enough of my beard, the point is that there are many such views on what is wrong and what is right for the putative barrister, beyond the rules of ethics they teach you on the course. And because pupillage has that element of the year long interview you are walking through a minefield wearing over sized boots. With your feet tied together. Blindfolded. 

So what advice to give the new pupil? You cannot go wrong by having a good look around you at those members of chambers who have been through this process before. I am not suggesting that you have to suppress yourself, to pretend to be someone else but you will notice that there is a certain way the majority of barristers dress, for example. No matter how free, fearless and independent you are going to be once you are a member of chambers, those electric blue flares with an embroidered flower down one of the thighs is not appropriate wear for your first day in chambers. You are not expected to be a Stepford barrister but the fact of the matter is that courtrooms are serious, somber places where the attention should be on the eloquence of your advocacy, not the flamboyance of your pocket square. 

Smart, dark suits and neatly ironed shirts and blouses are the order of the day. Clothes may not maketh the woman, but they can certainly show you have made the transition from student to professional. 

I was advised by someone the year ahead of me to say every third thing that came into my head, that pupils were like Victorian children; to be seen and not heard. That advice was along the right lines. As the pupil you have to remember that the members of chambers you go to court with are involved in cases that may well be stressful and may have nuances to them of which you are unaware. The golden rule is do not “contribute” your view unless asked to, particularly in conference, in the presence of the opponent or solicitor. By all means have a discussion with your pupil master or the person you are with that day about your approach to the case and its issues, but do it at an appropriate time. You may well feel that you have something to contribute but remember that you are there to observe and learn. There may be a very good reason why something is not being mentioned to the opponent so do not be the one to blurt it out. 

That even includes if you are dead certain the member of chambers you are with has got something absolutely wrong. Firstly, they may not have done, for reasons that you are not aware. Secondly, they are not going to thank you if they are wrong and you expose this error to all and sundry. If you think they are getting something wrong, then find a subtle way or moment to tell them. You may be able to slip them a note or begin a conversation when you are not being overheard with “I am probably being stupid, but I have had a look in Archbold and I would have said that statute isn’t in force yet. Where am I going wrong?”

Diligence and hard work will always be noted. And that includes the appearance of diligence and hard work. If your pupil master tells you they expect you in chambers at 9am there is no harm in being at your desk at 830. And the same can be said at home time. Do not be the pupil who is never seen in chambers after 430pm. This is not just a question of being chained to your desk to show you can cope with the sort of hours that City Lawyers wear as a badge of pride. These are the times, outside of court hours, when you are likely to encounter members of chambers. This is, therefore, your chance to get to know them and them to get to know you. Add to that is the fact that a career at the Bar is going to involve plenty of preparation outside of “normal” office hours. Now is a good time to get used to it. 

Pupillage is, more than anything else, your apprenticeship. There is so much to learn, so much to absorb. Take every opportunity to gain experience. And do not be afraid to ask if you do not know how something is done. Or why someone did something in a particular way. 

Try to avoid, if you can, simply asking for the answer. It is so easy to approach members of chambers to ask “how do I….” or “what is the law on….” Show people you are thinking about things and not just expecting to be spoon fed. Try saying “I think the answer is…..what is your view?” Or “I have looked it up, can I just run through what I have found? Is there anything else?” People should be generous with their time as long as they do not think this is a substitute to you doing your own work and thinking. 

Always meet deadlines set to you for work. If there is a specific problem, if you are struggling to find the answer or found yourself hospitalised when you dropped Archbold on your toe, then ask for an extension. That is what you will do when you are on your feet. Do not hand in work late, and then come up with your excuses. 

Check your written work. Then check it again. Then go away and read something else. Then come back to your piece of work and check it again. Then print it out. And check again. 

There will come the point in time when something goes wrong. Do not think that because someone gives you a piece of work back with red ink all over and corrections galore then this is the end of the world. Your work is not going to be perfect. It is going to need correcting. You are going to make plenty of errors. The important thing is to learn from them, to not make the same mistake time and time again. 

Things can go more spectacularly wrong, of course. There are a rare number of pupillages so that do encounter real problems. Make sure you work with Chambers so, should a problem be identified during a review of your pupillage, you know what is expected of you and what you need to be doing. Set a plan and work out the problem. The Bar Council run a dedicated and confidential advice service for pupils. If you encounter difficulties then use this service. 

One final word of advice. Enjoy your pupillage and enjoy getting to know people that you will hopefully spend the rest of your career working with. Do remember that you want to be remembered as the pupil who excelled at everything they did, not the pupil who photocopied their nether regions in the clerks’ room after the Christmas drinks party….

I hope someone out there will find this advice useful. Pupillage is full of highs and lows. At the start you will be desperate to get out there and begin your career. As your first six draws near to a close you will wish you could go back to the start as you will feel like you know nothing. Trust me, you know enough and you have the ability that has got you this far. More senior members of the profession will always be prepared to help. 

Twenty-three years have passed in the blink of an eye. I may moan about the job, about the MoJ, about fees and about just about everything else. But it is still great to see the enthusiasm of those new to the job. Good luck!

Wassssup?!?

This is an intercepted (but entirely imagined) Whatsapp conversation. 

CeeGee: Bro!

The GoveMeister: sup

CeeGee: You seen my main man Davey C? Been tryin to bell him up but he ain’t taking my call, bro.

The GoveMeister: chill man. he been busy with that Euro crew. brexit be a wicked ting yano?

CeeGee: Is dat wicked bad or like wicked good man?

The GoveMeister: 😜

CeeGee: But it like he proper dissin’ me. It be like my time as his Lord Chancellor ain’t mean nuthin!

The GoveMeister: dunno watcha chattin about

CeeGee: All this prison reform BS. Proper showin me up, bro. Like I didn’t no shit when I was there doin the tough guy pose and dat “no nonsense” face. 

The GoveMeister: LMAO

The user CeeGee invited the user DC_PM to join the conversation

The user DC_PM declined the invitation to join the conversation. 

CeeGee: It ain’t funny, bro. U ain’t been any better.

The GoveMeister: man, it just business. i am just taking care of business. it’s all cool.

CeeGee: It wouldn’t be so cool if it was you he was sellin’ out bro.

The GoveMeister: i feel you. yano dat education ting don’t end so well for me. yo just gotta roll with it man. take the hits. be on the down low when it all come on top. you know what I be sayin?

CeeGee: Not really….couldn’t you just have kept one of my things real. Like the book ting. Or dat big house for the yute offenders? Or maybe that tings that totally fkd the solicitors. They were all cool.

The GoveMeister: sorry dude. they were not cool.

CeeGee: I aint gettin no respeck innit?

TheGoveMeister: word

CeeGee: Bro, I be like all losin face in the Westminster hood. Everyone is sayin I ain’t know nothin. Everyone is be like “CeeGee, he ain’t got a clue”

The GoveMeister: you aint. lol 😂

CeeGee: Bro, I am the Leader and don’t you go forgetting dat. Don’t make me come round there and smack you up.

The GoveMeister: you ain’t got the moves to worry me. i am the LC now. u know that bill of rights ting you started?

CeeGee: Bro, you know I love my bill of rights. It was pure CeeGee, dat. 

The GoveMeister: well it’s goin the same way as the saudi prison deal and the court charge. consider yourself well and truly out of the crew

CeeGee: Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah 😢😥😪😭😰😿

The GoveMeister: talk to the hand ✋

CeeGee: I got a wicked idea to stop the press knowin when the Feds wanna talk to one of us.

The GoveMeister: 💩

CeeGee: U ain’t got no right to be like dat

The GoveMeister: now be a good boi and stop ur bitchin

CeeGee: Can you talk to DC? Put in a word.

…………

CeeGee: U there?

………….

CeeGee: Bro??

You are blocked by the user The GoveMeister.