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    What Is A Barrister?    

The legal profession in England and Wales is made up of barristers and solicitors. Historically, a bright line divided the two branches of the profession. With few exceptions, access to the courts rested solely in the hands of the barrister. The solicitor, in turn, had virtually exclusive access to the lay client. In the 19th Century it was determined that a barrister could act only pursuant to instructions from a solicitor and the barrister was precluded from dealing directly with the client. The solicitor, in turn, selected and instructed the barrister.

The barrister is a lawyer who has been admitted to "plead at the bar." That means that he or she has been called to the bar by the "benchers" of one of the four Inns of Court (Middle Temple, Inner Temple, Gray’s Inn and Lincoln's Inn) and, subject to pupilage requirements, is allowed to appear in court to argue a client's case. Prerequisites to call include attaining a second-class honours degree, attending the Inns of Court School of Law, or other validated Bar Vocational Course provider, for a one year term and passing the "bar final" exams. The call is followed by a one-year pupilage in chambers, where the novice lawyer benefits from association and attendance at court with an experienced barrister.

The requirements for admission to the Bar Vocational Course (BVC) are strict and the course itself is demanding. A pupilage is somewhat similar to an internship in the medical profession and allows the new barrister to observe and assist the "pupil master" in action and, hopefully, learn from the experience. In recent years graduates have found it difficult to secure and finance a pupilage and have experienced even more difficulty in obtaining a "tenancy," i.e., a position in chambers upon completion of pupilage. The pupil can earn nothing for the first 6 months and there is little expectation of significant earnings in the second 6 months. A number of chambers assist pupils with an award of funds, which auguments any earnings the pupil may realize during the second 6 months.

Although a number of barristers may make up any particular "set" of chambers, they are prohibited from incorporating or joining together as partners, and each acts as a sole practitioner.

Anyone who has viewed Rumpole of the Bailey" on Thames Television or the Public Broadcasting System, or has read any of the Rumpole books authored by John Mortimer Q.C., has received an excellent overview of how barristers' chambers operate. The barrister is easily identifiable by his or her working garb, which include robe and wig.
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A solicitor, on the other hand, is a lawyer who, after having served under the supervision of a practicing solicitor for two years, and having satisfied other demands of the Law Society, including educational requirements, is admitted to practice by the Master of the Rolls. Solicitors have limited rights to practice before the courts ("rights of access"), but traditionally "instruct" a barrister to appear in court for them. The instructions provide the barrister with necessary information and documents, and outline the tasks which the solicitor wishes the barrister to perform. Following tradition, the instructions and related papers are tied with a colored ribbon, referred to as a "brief" which, in turn, is delivered to the barrister. After review of the instructions, conference(s) with the instructing solicitor and his or her client, and any required legal research, the barrister argues the matter at issue in court. The solicitors' rights of access to the courts have been expanded of late but, generally, a solicitor is considered an "office lawyer" whereas the barrister, who provides opinions to solicitors on difficult points of law, also appears in court.

Considerable change has been made in recent years with respect to the traditional rights of access, i.e., the solicitor's right of access to the courts and the client's right of direct access to the barrister. The Court & Legal Services Act abolished the exclusive rights of barrister access to the higher courts, i.e., the Crown Court (criminal), High Court (civil), Court of Appeal and House of Lords in 1990. After first obtaining certification, solicitors may appear in the higher courts, thus expanding upon the solicitor's historical rights of access to magistrates courts (criminal), county courts (civil) and interlocutory hearings in chambers (private hearings) in the High Court. Relatively few solicitors have sought certification.

Direct access to barristers by members of certain recognized professional bodies has been allowed since 1989. Citizens Advice Bureau, trade unions, police and professional bodies have been allowed direct access as well. Changes to the Bar Council Code of Conduct effective 6 July 2004 now allow, but do not require, barristers to accept instruction direct from the public. Particularly sensitive areas, which are excepted from the 2004 Code of Conduct changes are (1) immigration or asylum work, (2) family or ciminal proceedings other than for advice where proceedings have been commenced (but not to attend interviews conducted by prosecuting or investigating authorities) or some appeals and (3) where the instructions come from intermediaries and are in connection with any family or criminal proceedings. To qualify to perform direct access work, the barrister must have been in practice for three years following completion of pupilage, have complied with training requirements imposed by the Bar Council and have notified the Bar Council that he or she intends to do public access work.

There are several web sites available to the internet user which explain in considerably more detail the rich history of the bar, the requirements to qualify for call to the bar, the dichotomy between the role of the solicitor and the barrister, the workings of chambers and the role played by the barrister within the British judicial system. Perhaps the best of those sites are the web pages maintained by The General Council of the Bar and by Online Law.

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In rounded numbers, there were 10,300 barristers admitted to practice before the bar of England and Wales as of 1st March 2003 and 86,000 practicing solicitors as of that date, a total of 96,300 lawyers. In comparison, on 1st March 2003, there were 191,000 lawyers admitted to the active practice of law in California, the population of which is approximately 40% of that of England and Wales.

There are many variations on the above topics. The discussion contained here, and elsewhere on this site, will be modified on a regular basis to discuss those variations and the evolving changes in the roles afforded solicitors and barristers under the British judicial system.

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