I am accused of a crime: should I choose a barrister or a solicitor advocate to represent me at court?

What is a barrister?

Barristers are specialist legal advisers and court room advocates, driven by their desire for, and training in, trial advocacy. Barristers have been providing expert advice and advocacy since the 13th century in the higher courts, namely the Crown Court, High Court, Court of Appeal and House of Lords. A limited number of senior barristers with outstanding ability are appointed Queen’s Counsel (QC) and are instructed in the most serious and complex cases, often leading a barrister who is not a QC (known as a ‘junior’).

Barristers are self-employed. As such, they are independent and objective and trained to advise clients on the strengths as well as the weaknesses of their case. They are not allied to a firm of solicitors and are free to give their opinion as to a case, with no fear of upsetting a colleague or damaging their reputation. Their extensive training, specialist legal knowledge and experience in and out of court enables them to advise on all aspects of the criminal trial process. Early advice from a barrister can make a substantial difference to the outcome of a case and the sentence imposed.

Competition to become a barrister is fierce, and the training onerous. Generally, anyone with anything less than a good 2:1 degree from a reputable University should think twice before seeking a career at the Bar. Those graduates with a Law Degree can proceed directly to the 12-month Barristers qualifying exam course, the Bar Vocational Course (BVC). For non-law degree graduates, a 12-month conversion course must first be undertaken.

The BVC year is hard work, and requires a quick, decisive and analytical mind for there is a vast bulk of legal material to be mastered and coursework to be completed. Additionally, intensive advocacy training and practical exercises built upon the confidence and public speaking skills inherent in those selected to undertake the BVC. Those who succeed in passing the rigorous final examinations – and many fail – are eligible to be called to the Bar. By now, the fledgling barrister will possess the ability to assimilate, retain, and manage large volumes of information and law; they will be expert in opinion writing and advising clients on the evidence, and the Criminal Procedure Rules and complex rules of evidence will be second nature. However, there is more to come, for a barrister must then be accepted into one of the four Inns of Court, which provide further specialist training, in order to be called to the Bar – and its still not over. What follows is the most competitive and ruthless stage of the barristers training; the 12 month ‘pupillage’.

Pupillage and Chambers

Groups of barristers operate from ‘chambers’. Most criminal chambers in London have at least fifty members and each year offer two or three places to trainee (or ‘pupil’) barristers. Competition is steep; it is not unusual for 600 applicants to apply for the few places on offer. The next year is then spent following experienced barristers in court, honing advocacy and written skills and learning court procedure. It is only after the successful completion of pupillage that the barrister is finally able to practice, and to apply for a permanent position in chambers. Few barristers make it to the pupillage stage, and only the very best of those gain a permanent place in chambers.

What is a solicitor advocate?

It is said that solicitors are to barristers as GPs are to surgeons: they are lawyers who can give advice to the public on most areas of law. Solicitors are able to represent their clients at tribunals, in the Magistrates and County Courts. A small but growing number are also able to represent clients in the ‘higher courts’, which were, until the 1990s, the preserve of the barristers.

Most solicitors are employed in law firms, where the more senior solicitors are partners in the business. Their work generally comes from their local area. Though any solicitor will want to give his or her client good advice, they are more directly affected by the consequence of their advice than a barrister would be.

The training required to become a solicitor is, like the training to become a barrister, academically demanding. As with the Bar, those graduates with a Law Degree can proceed directly to the 12 month Legal Practitioners Course (LPC). For non-law degree graduates, the 12-month conversion course must first be undertaken.

The LPC offers training in a range of legal subjects and practice areas, such as litigation, property law, solicitors accounts, professional conduct and regulation, wills and administration, taxation and further elective courses. There is also training in drafting and advocacy, but not to the same depth as is to be found on the Barristers Vocational Course.

Having passed all of the necessary exams, a solicitor will obtain a training contract in a firm of solicitors, with the hope of a job at the end of the training contract. The training contract will involve the solicitor spending time in various departments learning about different areas of law and practice.
Historically, solicitors did not have rights of audience in the higher courts, so were unable to conduct Crown Court trials. Now the position has changed, some solicitors are qualifying as solicitor advocates upon completion of a short course that lacks the intensity and breadth of the Bar vocational course.

Should I have a Barrister or Solicitor?

Anyone facing trial in the Crown Court is able to choose any barrister from the independent bar to represent him or her. However, increasingly, solicitors are seeking to maximise their profits by appearing in court. Whether this is in the best interests of the client varies from case to case and solicitor to solicitor, but there is growing concern among judges that those represented by solicitor advocates are not being adequately defended. When solicitors appear in court for preliminary hearings, judges often make it clear to the defendant that they are able to choose a barrister if they so wish. Remarkably, some defendants are unaware of that fact, having not been told of their rights by their own solicitor.

What is important is that the client should be free to make the choice himself; GP or surgeon, solicitor advocate or barrister?

© Nick Barraclough