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What is the role of the barrister?

Updated Wednesday 22nd October 2008

The position of barrister is crucial in the justice process. Our panel explains why.

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Copyright The Open University


Copyright The Open University


Abigail Bright: I think the role of a barrister as a public servant is first and foremost to rehearse in the best possible way public argument and debate. And I think, when I say best possible way I think we would judge that according to whether a client on behalf of whom the barrister is acting thinks that the barrister has done as good a job as the client himself or herself would do if only they had the barrister’s legal training, the privilege of legal knowledge and a familiarity with court etiquette, rules of evidence.

Mr Justice Calvert Smith: I think they play a crucial role and one which as a country we should do our best to preserve. They provide independent advice from a self-employed, if we’re talking about the self-employed bar, perspective to lay clients in civil cases, in criminal cases, in family cases, in all three of which, as I’ve said in answer to another question, can be quite unpopular and difficult advice. They have no permanent relationship with the client, be the client a government department or a person or a company or whatever. They are brought in to give independent advice and frequently that independent advice is sensible, saves the client unnecessarily expense or indeed sometimes imprisonment and so on.

Gary Slapper: The role of barristers within the legal system is to the best of their ability to express on behalf of their clients the relevant case in accordance with the facts of that case and the law, to put the best conceivable argument in furtherance of the needs of their client. So it’s excellent advocacy, and by virtue of all barristers doing that in all cases so that all rights are properly vindicated, protected or prosecuted then the society in which that happens gains because it’s a rights-vibrant society, it’s a place where the laws on the paper are translated into the laws in real life.

Lynn Tayton: In the court context, they are there to represent their clients and protect their clients’ interests fearlessly, even if that client is personally unpalatable to them. And they must do that within a strict set of ethical rules. They’re there to test the factual evidence, and if the barristers do their work properly then both sides of any argument are comprehensively put before the court so that a judge is then in a position to consider all the issues and give a fair and just decision.

Mr Justice Calvert Smith:Because, by and large, the bar trusts itself and the judiciary, which is by and large drawn from the ranks of the practicing bar, trusts its former colleagues not to mislead it, not to try to take unfair advantages by not revealing the truth and so on, the business of the court I believe in this country is conducted in a far more effective way so that real issues are the ones which are decided by the court rather than side or even non-issues which are dreamt up for tactical or other reasons. And the traditional oral advocacy, the ability to conduct the proceedings in real time in front of the public rather than, as happens in many other jurisdiction, principally on paper with very little evidence actually being given and tested on oath with cross-examination is a peculiar skill of the barrister which obviously starts being learnt at law school and is passed on by pupil masters and senior members of the Chambers and so on. It is absolutely essential and one of the sort of jewels of the crown of the English legal system.

Gary Slapper: In addition to advocacy, which is an important and very well known part of what barristers do, they have an additional and important role within the legal system to construct, compose, design and deliver advice to clients, individual clients and organisations about what the law is and how the law would unfold were it to ever be tested in court. Quite a lot of barristerial work is of that kind so legal disputes, if you like, are edited out of the court process by virtue of people reading counsel’s opinion in detail and deciding that as a result of that they will proceed in this way rather than that way which as a result avoids a particular dispute. Or that it so clearly vindicates, protects, it confirms their right, that when that view is expressed to another side of what might be a debate, a dispute, that the other side concedes that they, having taken their own legal advice from barristers, that it’s a battle not worth entering into and so they concede. And that way rights are socially protected.

Jane Goodey: The barrister’s role is to represent the people that they’re defending in the most passionate way they can but always balancing that as a truly professional with the responsibilities that they have towards the court.

Abigail Bright: As a public servant a barrister’s first duty is, in fact, to the court rather than to their client or to a certain point of law in which they’re arguing, and I think that’s often overlooked. So I think most advocates work with that very firmly in mind. When I say most, really all advocates.

Gary Slapper: There is a deeper, wider social purpose served by ten thousand barristers doing their ordinary everyday work and that is the promotion of democracy which is an extremely important point about which the bar, and British society at large probably, is very modest and it’s a slightly less visible thing going on. But the democracy is a society that is run by rules in accordance with the rules as opposed to one which is governed by the wishes of a dictator or a dictator monarch or an army. So in a democracy with rules it works well to the extent that the rules are properly applied, and they’re properly applied if you’ve always got recourse to a legal system and having someone who knows that system and those rules give vent to them properly within the legal system. That’s what, that’s the life blood of a democracy based on rules, and so the net result of barristers doing their work and their role within the legal system is to give the life blood and action to democracy.

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