Barrister to Chris Grayling: "Come and do work experience"

Fearing his lack of experience with publicly-funded criminal cases, Sarah Forshaw QC wants to offer the justice secretary a "Mini Pupillage" to show him why justice is being compromised, and not all barristers are "fat cats".

It’s rather unnerving that our justice secretary, Chris Grayling, has absolutely zero legal experience, having worked in TV production and management consultancy before turning to politics. But help is at hand: one of the UK’s top criminal barristers, Sarah Forshaw QC, told me she’s happy to invite him to her chambers to complete a work experience placement known, in the language of the Bar, as a Mini Pupillage.

"As I understand it", says Forshaw, whose eloquence is conspicuous even among barristers, "Mr Grayling has been to Southwark Crown Court on one occasion, but he didn’t actually enter the court. I don’t believe he’s ever seen a publicly funded criminal trial."

Grayling is welcome, says Forshaw, to start his legal education at the chambers she jointly heads, 5 King’s Bench Walk: "I’d dearly like to extend him an invitation to come with any junior member of my chambers, to go along to court with them and see what they do. And he can see the fee they earn at the end of it."

Given that he is currently proposing to make cuts and reshuffles to the Bar that many fear will lead to miscarriages of justice, Grayling could surely do with a greater understanding of what barristers actually do. A Mini Pupillage would be a good place to start.

Grayling is fond of portraying all barristers as high earning "fat cats" bloated on public money – but is this actually a function of his lack of knowledge of what it’s like to be a criminal barrister? Because, as anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of the Bar knows, no one goes into criminal law to make lots of money.

Forshaw tells me about a recent case she’s done: "It was a murder, and a long murder. Under the current rates, I grossed £380 per day. When you take off 22 per cent for clerks’ fees and rent, and tax the rest, you’re looking at £190 per day. And that’s in a Bailey murder, a complex multi handed murder – and if you work that out on an hourly rate, bearing in mind I’m up at 6 most mornings and normally working until about half 11 at night, that is, I’m afraid, significantly less that you’d pay someone to come in and do the ironing."

Criminal barristers, despite what Grayling says and what many believe, do not do it for the money. And that’s something else he would learn in just a few days as a Mini Pupil. He’d learn why many criminal barristers endure such long hours and pressure for take-home pay of £25,000 per year. Forshaw returns to the Bailey murder case to explain why that is.

"[My client] was a nineteen year old boy and he didn’t have a bean. He was acquitted, [because] he was wrongly accused. After the verdict, we went outside the Bailey, he and I, and the mother of the deceased came up to say to him, 'We knew you shouldn’t have been there.' And the brother of the deceased came up and shook him by the hand, and said 'I’m very glad you were acquitted.' That’s why it matters."

This blog was originally published on the Spear's website - you can find it here.

Is Grayling's portrayal of barristers as "fat cats" a function of his lack of knowledge? Photograph: Getty Images.

Mark Nayler is a senior researcher at Spear's magazine.

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Northern Ireland election results: a shift beneath the status quo

The power of the largest parties has been maintained, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

After a long day of counting and tinkering with the region’s complex PR vote transfer sytem, Northern Irish election results are slowly starting to trickle in. Overall, the status quo of the largest parties has been maintained with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party returning as the largest nationalist and unionist party respectively. However, beyond the immediate scope of the biggest parties, interesting changes are taking place. The two smaller nationalist and unionist parties appear to be losing support, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

The most significant win of the night so far has been Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit who topped polls in the Republican heartland of West Belfast. Traditionally a Sinn Fein safe constituency and a former seat of party leader Gerry Adams, Carroll has won hearts at a local level after years of community work and anti-austerity activism. A second People Before Profit candidate Eamon McCann also holds a strong chance of winning a seat in Foyle. The hard-left party’s passionate defence of public services and anti-austerity politics have held sway with working class families in the Republican constituencies which both feature high unemployment levels and which are increasingly finding Republicanism’s focus on the constitutional question limiting in strained economic times.

The Green party is another smaller party which is slowly edging further into the mainstream. As one of the only pro-choice parties at Stormont which advocates for abortion to be legalised on a level with Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, the party has found itself thrust into the spotlight in recent months following the prosecution of a number of women on abortion related offences.

The mixed-religion, cross-community Alliance party has experienced mixed results. Although it looks set to increase its result overall, one of the best known faces of the party, party leader David Ford, faces the real possibility of losing his seat in South Antrim following a poor performance as Justice Minister. Naomi Long, who sensationally beat First Minister Peter Robinson to take his East Belfast seat at the 2011 Westminster election before losing it again to a pan-unionist candidate, has been elected as Stormont MLA for the same constituency. Following her competent performance as MP and efforts to reach out to both Protestant and Catholic voters, she has been seen by many as a rising star in the party and could now represent a more appealing leader to Ford.

As these smaller parties slowly gain a foothold in Northern Ireland’s long-established and stagnant political landscape, it appears to be the smaller two nationalist and unionist parties which are losing out to them. The moderate nationalist party the SDLP risks losing previously safe seats such as well-known former minister Alex Attwood’s West Belfast seat. The party’s traditional, conservative values such as upholding the abortion ban and failing to embrace the campaign for same-sex marriage has alienated younger voters who instead may be drawn to Alliance, the Greens or People Before Profit. Local commentators have speculate that the party may fail to get enough support to qualify for a minister at the executive table.

The UUP are in a similar position on the unionist side of the spectrum. While popular with older voters, they lack the charismatic force of the DUP and progressive policies of the newer parties. Over the course of the last parliament, the party has aired the possibility of forming an official opposition rather than propping up the mandatory power-sharing coalition set out by the peace process. A few months ago, legislation will finally past to allow such an opposition to form. The UUP would not commit to saying whether they are planning on being the first party to take up that position. However, lacklustre election results may increase the appeal. As the SDLP suffers similar circumstances, they might well also see themselves attracted to the role and form a Stormont’s first official opposition together as a way of regaining relevance and esteem in a system where smaller parties are increasingly jostling for space.