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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".

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

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.