I was invited to Wood Green Crown Court to shadow on a summer rioters’ case with a barrister I am currently working for. Of course I jumped at the chance of going and watching first-hand what a criminal barrister does in court.
I arrived at court slightly late without eating any breakfast with a bag full of sweets. I do not spot the barrister I am supposed to be shadowing, so I go to the court and look around and realise he is not there. Then I get a phone call to go to reception. When he arrives there are files in one hand and a wig in the other and we proceed to the cells below, where we leave our mobiles, coats and bags behind.
Upon entering my thoughts consist of; there being 15 minutes before the listing time, the information that the judge is somewhat horrible to barristers and underlying unease due to my stomach grumbling for some food. Then I spot the desk and chairs that are bolted to the floor and the panic button beside me, and I wonder what I have got myself into.
I sit there in the cell listening to the client and the barrister; deciding the client does not seem like an awful person, to the contrary he seems nice – soft and well spoken. I proceed to realise criminal law in practice is a world away from reading textbooks where I am able to pass judgements on facts written in the pages without a care.
After leaving the cells and grabbing my bag and coat, we make our way up to the court where I notice there was a Chinese person staring at me, I walk pass without a second thought. As I sit down I notice a clerk rushing towards me and I think; I am in trouble, I’ve sat where I am not suppose to sit or they’ve mistaken me for a criminal. He gets to me… and asks am I a translator to which I reply no.
I notice we are 45 minutes late, however the court seems to be running late and the prosecution of the current case was getting a dressing down the judge. The thoughts of ‘am I sure I want to become a barrister?’ are prominent in my mind. However my barrister is soon in front of the judge and the case begins with the formalities, where I sit mesmerised. The case is soon adjourned with a short break so the prosecution can locate witnesses for the case.
We decide to go for a coffee whilst there is a break and as soon as we buy our coffees there is an announcement that the case is being heard. We make our way back up where I hear the case and the judge gives both sides a dressing down and all that’s rushing through my mind is a slightly different refrain: Being a barrister IS what I wish to do.
After the court case concludes we go back downstairs to the client and on the way I begin eating my sweets and finishing my coffee, I feel quite happy that my stomach has stopped making funny noises. As we were leaving the cells I see our client handcuffed and walked away to the cells where I hear another prisoner shout for a cup of tea and he is ignored by the guards. My mind immediately reflects on my own easy consumption – I am glad that I am not in there.
On the way out of the court I hear an announcement for an available defence barrister to go to court number 1, I look at the barrister and he replies that he is not a charity stating ‘you will probably not get paid for it’ before continuing to the exit.
On my way home, I rethink: is a criminal barrister really what I wish to do? The legal aid cuts have made the prospect of surviving in that practice area very difficult indeed, and I can’t shake this from my mind. However one thing I am certain of is that the bar is definitely for me.
Sophie Lau is a first year GELLB student at The City Law School.