Knackered Briefs: A day in the life of a criminal barrister
18 July 2022
Barrister “strikes” (days of action) are happening across England and Wales. Knackered Briefs is a series of accounts from criminal barristers highlighting the issues associated with the sustained underfunding of the criminal justice system in England and Wales.
Monday morning. Rape trial today so I’m up early to take the train to court. Feeling tired because further evidence was served on Friday. Weekend spent working – not only going through the new evidence, but also revising the preparation I had previously done. Also on Friday (at 5pm), the court told us that another trial was also listed in my court AND a couple of sentences in the afternoon.
I cancelled a trip to see friends over the weekend, but, with working seven hours on Saturday and another seven on Sunday, I wouldn’t have been much company anyway. Partner walked dog, made meals on both days whilst also bringing endless cups of tea to get me through.
On the train, reflecting over my trial preparation – new evidence received meant that I had to research and write a couple of legal arguments over the weekend. The result of those would influence how I questioned the complainant in the case. I wonder why this new evidence has taken so long to reach me, it was dated last year. The complainant had given her account to the police two years ago, with the criminal case starting last year. I had seen the police officer in charge of the case at the last court hearing. He seemed nice enough and apologised for the slowness of everything. He explained that it was only him investigating the case – funding cuts meant that everyone was stretched. He’d had to have time off because he was injured on duty, but there was nobody to pick up the case while he was off.
En route to court, I pick up a sandwich from the Co-Op and yet another cuppa to get me through the morning. The court canteen is long gone (cuts, again) so it was either bring your own packed food and drink or spend 30 minutes during the lunch break walking to and from the nearest shops. Not an option when we have work to get on with in readiness for sitting again at 2.10pm and I have to squeeze in seeing my client in the cells – visits permitted from 1.45pm.
Get to court and go to the Robing Room. Same paint for at least 20 years. Once upon a time, one corner had been the dining area and had been jazzed up with wallpaper. Now it’s at once bleached beyond recognition but also variously stained – whether from mould, moisture or someone’s hair gel is impossible to tell, but everyone gives it a very wide berth. Except today, because that’s the only remaining area with a free table, so I sit there. My opponent is failing to open one of the many broken windows, so he gave up and comes over to speak to me.
Prosecutor says he has asked CPS to tell the witnesses not to attend today because there isn’t much prospect of getting on – in a rape trial, where the defendant is in custody and the complainant gave her account to the police two years ago. Why? Well, there is another trial listed in our court, so it’s 50/50 whether we’ll get on. I go to the cells and tell my client – he takes it surprisingly well but asks me to make a bail application if the case goes off. He has already been in prison for six months waiting for his trial.
Into court – judge already frazzled. Court staff in a flap because the remote link technology isn’t working, and this means that we can’t hear any witnesses giving evidence from outside of the court room. Such as the complainant in my trial.
All counsel told to come back at 11.30am while court staff sort out the technology, which includes having to call an outside provider for assistance. I make use of the time by seeing my client, then the Prosecutor to see if there is any further work we can do in order to reduce the amount of time the case takes in court. We go through all of the witness statements and, where we can, reduce those into Agreed Facts. We spend 40 minutes on those so that 10 minutes of court time can be saved.
Back to court, judge at once frustrated but apologetic to all. Technology now working! Which of us is to win the trial lottery and actually get on with our trial? Told that the other trial takes priority over ours because there is a child witness, and the defendant has been in custody for longer than my client. But there are some issues with the other trial which mean it might not happen – the officer in that case hasn’t been warned to attend and it looks like she might be on annual leave, so that has to be chased.
Judge send everyone away until 2.15pm so my opponent and I carry on trying to reduce the evidence down even further.
The judge had two sentences to hear – one included a defendant being produced on the link from prison, so took priority.
We hear that the issues in the other trial have been resolved and that they are ready to go. Judge thanks my opponent and I, and apologises to my client. Then it turns out that nobody has told the complainant in our case not to turn up and so she has turned up and been waiting round all day. More apologies from the judge. When could our trial be heard? The List Officer can’t be reached on the phone, so my opponent and I go to see her (three floors down from the court). Length of trial had been five days. With our work on the evidence, we think it might now be four days – we’ve saved the court a whole day! List Officer shakes her head. Best she can do is fit the case in on a date three weeks from now. Prosecutor can do that date, but I already have a trial in which has been in my diary for over a year (cuts, again). List Officer says she can’t help with any other date, so it is up to the judge.
Back to court but the other trial has started, so we wait until the jury are sent out for the day. Tell judge of the date offered for trial but that I can’t do it. Judge apologetic and sympathetic so manages to extract from Listing the date on which they might be able to list the case when I am available – 12 months away! Judge shakes his head, apologises and says that 12 months is too long to wait for a trial where the defendant is in custody and has already been in custody for six months. I point out that the delay so far is not the defendant’s/my fault and that the judge does have the option of bailing the defendant should the trial listing be too far away. This would mean that the defendant would get to have the same barrister who has prepared the case from day one. Judge apologetic once more but says there would have to be a separate hearing about that, but it doesn’t seem that the prosecution has contributed to the delay, so it’s unlikely the Judge would bail the defendant. Judge permits me to speak to client in the dock – client says that if the judge isn’t going to let him out, he wants to have his trial sooner rather than later. Who can blame him?
New trial date fixed for when I cannot do it.
Leave court room at 4.15pm and race down to the cells to see client in order to fully explain that it will not be me on the next occasion and provide him with reassurance. But client has already been taken on the only prison van that will visit the court this afternoon (cuts, again).
Speak to Prosecutor – he’s spoken to the complainant, who is angry and upset that the trial hasn’t started. She says she might not attend next time; she just wants to get on with her life, she made her allegation two years ago. Prosecutor says in fact, he might not be able to do the case after all and so it could be new briefs all round.
Sigh of relief when I get a seat on the train.
Partner already home and cooking – dog at once delighted I am home whilst also furious that I have not been in her company all day.
Open laptop to review emails. Message to say that I am covering someone else’s case tomorrow, it’s a mention for disclosure. I sigh…it will be a long night looking at a case that I am not familiar with but, by the time I arrive at court tomorrow, I will know inside out.
Breakdown of pay
- Fee – (for work in court today and 14hrs weekend prep): £380
- Train Fare: £48.50
- Chambers’ Fees (@ 20%): £76.00
- Remainder (gross of tax/NI etc): £255.50
- Hourly rate: £12.17