Saturday, 30 June 2012

One interview down

Half an hour of topical and ethical questions. Nothing about me at all. Lots of fighting with the panel. Lots of 'pauses to think'.

Probably got the ethical questions wrong. Boo hiss.

Good God, how do I survive another 2 of these in the next 2 hours?

Friday, 29 June 2012

Super Saturday

During the Primaries before the Presidential elections in the US, where the various parties select their candidates, one day is called 'Super Tuesday'. Super Tuesday is a crazy phenomenon. Historically, the States with the most influence on the selection of candidates were either the big States (California, New York, Texas) or the States that held their Primary really early in the process, and helped generate momentum (New Hampshire). Thus, to increase their own importance States started shifting their Primaries earlier and earlier (known as front-loading).

And then Super Tuesday was born - a load of smaller States got together and decided to hold their Primaries on the same day, thus meaning that a huge proportion of the votes available to candidates were available on the same day. Those States that were involved in Super Tuesday were suddenly very, very important.

In 2008, for instance, 24 States held their Primary on February 5th - 52% of the votes were available on that day. Craziness.

But why this (very badly delivered) lesson on American politics?

Because tomorrow marks Super Saturday - 3 interviews in 3 hours. 3 out of 8 the interviews that I've secured. Last year I only did 3 interviews over the whole bloody summer.

Basically, my performance between 9 and 12 tomorrow morning will decide a significant proportion of my applications - and with it, potentially, my future. If I have my 'game face' on tomorrow morning, I could seriously improve my chances of pupillage, if I buckle under the pressure, I could put a Titanic hole in my side.

Let's hope that I come out fighting.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

The 'Dream Set'

I think everyone has a dream Set - the place they'd love to get pupillage and spend their career. It's not always the biggest, most successful or most famous Set in any given practice area - everyone has their own reasons.

I interviewed at my dream Set last night, and I genuinely think I cocked it up completely. I mean, I think I handle the general "this is who I am chat fairly well, but then there was an ethical question.

I thought I'd heard all the tricky ethical questions that interviewers love to pull out, but this one completely threw me.

I'm pretty sure I flubbed the answer completely and (at least in part) came to the wrong conclusion.

Ah well, as Marlon Brando once moaned: "I coulda been a contender".

We shall see.

The Prince and the Pauper

I know I moan every time I go, but on Monday I went back to Tower Bridge Mags to watch another afternoon of depression, “justice” and petty-crime. I’m not going to be able to get along to court much in the coming months as I’ve been lucky enough to find a job which should tide me over til the autumn, so this will be the last court report for a while.

I’ve written a couple of lines every now and then over the last few months about the Legal Aid reforms. I haven’t gone into the reforms in depth – I’d rather leave that to better minds than mine – but one of the more convincing arguments, in my opinion, is the risk of an increased number of unrepresented defendants. In a previous post I wrote about Eddie’s struggles with an unrepresented defendant back in February; on Monday I saw yet more evidence of how badly things can go when people are left to face the State on their own.

The case was regarding an alleged benefits fraud, specifically housing benefit. There were problems with Legal Aid in the case, and the defendant had no representation at all. She had previously retained a solicitor but she couldn’t afford to pay them any more. The allegation was that the defendant was not a ‘commercial tenant’ and so should not have claimed over £8,000 in housing benefit as housing benefit is apparently only to be paid to commercial tenants. There are a number of tests that council’s use to decide whether a lease is a commercial lease or not (and it’s worth noting here that ‘commercial’ here doesn’t refer to ‘commercial property’, like a shop, instead it refers to the purpose of the lease – is the landlord letting it on the market for an income/profit or are they doing it at mates’ rates?). There are many factors to take into account such as whether or not there is a written agreement, whether the rent is always paid, what happens if the rent is not paid, whether there is an existing relationship (of any kind) between the landlord and tenant, and so on. It is perfectly possible for a son to be a commercial tenant of his father without a written agreement; likewise you could have a full written agreement with a complete stranger but the council might decide that it is not a commercial agreement. Effectively, these things can be fairly subjective.

In this case the council wanted their money back. The defendant had been going through rough times and so the landlord had let her off rent for 4 or 5 months while she got back on her feet, had paid some of her bills for her and had become quite good friends with her. The council said that housing benefit is to be used for rent ONLY, and the landlord allowing her to spend it on other things is an abuse of that benefit, and actually amounted to fraud on the part of the tenant.

I’d never come across a similar case before, and struggled to get to grips with the law. The defendant had absolutely no idea. The case was prosecuted by the DWP and their in-house lawyer did a good job of explaining the case to the Magistrate. His examination in chief of the council’s benefits officer was pretty clear, and then up stepped the defendant.

Her cross was, understandably, shocking from beginning to end. It was exactly as you would expect a person with no training, no experience, and no understanding to be – unstructured, incoherent and damaging (to her own case). I could see what she was getting at, though:

The DWP’s witness said that housing benefit is only to be paid for rent, and should never be spent on bills. The defendant tried to make a point along the lines of: “But surely there’s a grey area? Sometimes rent will include some bills, sometimes it won’t. It’s surely impossible to say that housing benefit can never legitimately be spent on anything other than rent?” The magistrate tried to help her out as well (as he is bound to do), but instead we ended up with the defendant screaming about mandatory water charges in certain blocks of flats, and then bursting into tears.

The defendant soon abandoned that route and accused the witness of offering a plea bargain at the last hearing. Except the witness wasn’t at the last hearing. The defendant’s response? “Well, it was a short fat man, just like you, and it was easy to make a mistake”. The point won me over, at least.

The prosecution case closed, and the defendant started giving her own evidence. I have seen more coherent things written in faeces on the walls of grotty public toilets. But, the defendant can’t be blamed – she was in an incredibly frightening situation: the government is accusing you of a crime, there is no one to support you, no one to advise you, no one in your corner. It’s hard enough representing someone else, when you’re not emotionally invested in the case – imagine your liberty is on the line.

I must confess, I couldn’t hack listening to it any more. More and more, I wanted to get involved, to provide some kind of advice or representation – but as we all know, I’m just not qualified to do so, yet. So I had to leave the court. I was, frankly, angry at the way this poor woman was struggling.

So I went upstairs to Court 2 to watch the railway prosecutions (a mainstay at Tower Bridge Mags). The list was full of absent defendants – so I was going to watch the court deal, administratively, with 40 or 50 cases in a row, with the same result each time (found guilty in absence, fine, costs, victim surcharge, cost of the ticket that was avoided). I hoped that the simple humdrum repetitiveness would chill me out somewhat. It worked for 20 minutes or so – the magistrate thought I was a nutter for sitting down and watching something so mundane – but then a defendant actually showed up.

In these cases, the prosecutions are brought privately by the railway companies – the prosecutor is normally some office functionary who reads out their version of the facts – there’s no defendant to worry about, magistrate finds in their favour, everyone goes home.

When a defendant actually showed up, I could (almost literally) see the fear in the ‘prosecutor’s’ eyes. He wasn’t cut out for this. He was just an admin guy in a stripey jumper. Nonetheless, he pulled himself together and read out his version of the facts (on this occasion is was a bus service operated by the railway company). The judge asked the defendant to respond:

“Sir, I’m a law student at King’s College London. I was indeed travelling on the 171 Bus to Aldwych. I tapped my Oyster but didn’t see if the greenlight flashed or not. I also did not hear the beep as I was listening to my mp3 player. The driver did not stop me or point out to me in any way that my Oyster card had failed to validate. I naturally assumed all was okay, and got on with my journey. Ticket inspectors got on the bus at Elephant and Castle and said that I had not validated my Oyster, and I did argue with them. I offered to try validating it again but they did not let me do so. They asked for my name and address and said I would receive a court summons. I received the summons, and wrote to the company and asked them to disclose their CCTV for my inspection, so that I could prove that I did indeed attempt to validate the Oyster, and that I lacked the intent to avoid paying my fare. They did not respond and have not been willing to engage with me in any further discussion. So here I am today, and I’m happy to answer any questions you might have.”

The ‘prosecutor’ looked like he was going to die and asked for an adjournment. He went outside, and the defendant followed him. Two minutes later he came back in and said to the Magistrate:

“Sir, I have accepted payment of £1.35 in cash from the defendant, and now abandon this prosecution.”

Yes, all very funny – but I’d be willing to bet that the vast, vast majority of self-represented defendants act more like the first lady, than the second.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

More fun with Eddie

Firstly, apologies for not updating in a week, no excuses other than laziness and interview preparation.

Secondly, the return of Eddie. As I said in my last post, on Monday I popped down to Kingston Crown Court to spend another day with the big man himself.

From the start Eddie promised me a boring, and short day, he had two hearings: a bail app and a sentence. In both cases he was acting for the Crown.

The bail app was due to be held at 10am, and the sentence at 11.30. All over and done with by 1pm, and then a quick lunch and a good chat.

Things never quite work out. The defence barrister in the bail app was suffering a family crisis and couldn't get to court before 11. The judge hearing the bail app was due to continue a part-heard trial as soon as the bail app was over. The defendant in the bail app had previously been refused bail because he lived too close to the complainant, and had spent the last few weeks in prison waiting for his family to find somewhere else for him to stay. If they didn't have the bail app, the defendant would remain in prison. Eddie's job? Despite acting for the Crown, to ask the judge to take a mid-morning break from his trial once the defence barrister turned up, as it would be in the interests of justice to hear a bail application for the defendant - even though it was the Crown's position that (irrespective of the address) bail should not be granted.

The judge granted the adjournment.

We now had to wait, both for the other barrister to turn up and for Eddie's other matter (the sentence) to be called on.

Can you guess what happened next? That's right. The other barrister turned up at 11.30. Eddie was called into the sentence and the bail app at the same time. Eek,

Luckily, the clerk in the sentencing court was understanding, called on another matter and gave Eddie breathing space to get the bail app out of the way. The bail app was simple enough, a new address was suggested, the owner of the property answered some questions from the judge, and even before Eddie had said anything, bail was granted.

So, off to the sentencing - a simple matter, a domestic burglary, two defendants caught leaving the front door of the property. Actually, no. Not simple.

Both defendants were represented by the same solicitors, and the solicitors had only instructed one barrister to represent both of them. Their previous instructions had highlighted no conflicts, so joint instruction seemed appropriate.

The problem, however, was that the pre-sentence reports had not been provided until the morning of the hearing, and they created a problem: for one of the defendants it recommended a community order, for the other, 18 months imprisonment. Also, it recommended a psychiatric report for one of the defendants (the one for whom imprisonment was recommended). Why the vast disparity in recommendations? One defendant had dozens of previous convictions, the other was of otherwise good character.

The PSRs also exposed a conflict between the two: although the defendants had made bare, guilty pleas, in their PSRs they blamed each other for the robberies. They both accepted that they were there, but both also said it was NOT a joint enterprise and that they led astray by the other. Thus, their barrister could not effectively mitigate for either of them.

A tricky situation.

The barrister was about to declare himself embarrassed and withdraw from the case completely, but Eddie offered him another way out. Eddie would request an adjournment to ensure the psychiatric report could be carried out, and the defence barrister could then sort out the conflict away from the eyes of the court.

Hooray for Eddie.

We were still out of court by 12.15, but it had been a much crazier morning than Eddie had been expecting. I learned a big lesson: even the most minor mention/hearing can cause problems.

Eddie and I headed into Kingston for our lunch, and had a good chat setting the world to rights. He even offered to buy me lunch, but knowing that Criminal Barristers live on 50p a day I just couldn't bring myself to accept.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

The Return of Eddie

Going along to Kingston tomorrow to watch Eddie in action again. Looking forward to more of the 'coffee' in the robing room.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Apologies to the Republicans

But, my God, I've enjoyed all the patriotic flumpery over the last couple of weeks.

And now, we've got the utterly majestic Trooping the Colour. This is almost as good as the Morris Dancers a few weeks ago.

Better yet, the BBC has given us the option to turn off their utter-drivel- commentary via the red button. License fee well spent!

Interview Number 1, and superstitions

In about 3 minutes I'll be getting off the bus. In 5 minutes I'll be walking up Fleet Street. In 10 minutes I'll be  knocking on the door of my first interview. In 20 minutes (or so), that interview will probably be over.

In my interviews last year I developed a superstition: before interviews I ate a KitKat Dream, a Bourneville dark chocolate, and drank a bottle of orange Lucozade.

My superstition is not healthy. The sugar content alone could bring down a mammoth. The superstition developed because, on the way to one of my first rounds last year, I felt as if I desperately needed sugar. These things happen. So I bought the first things I saw. After the interview, I was invited to a second round, and my insanity was born.

All week ladyfemale has been trying to dissuade me from "this nonsense". She's lucked out: this early in the morning I really don't think I can force myself to eat a week's worth of sugar.

Further, I realised how ridiculous hanging on to a superstition from last year is: last year everything went wrong because of the horrendous "Set 3". Why on earth would I follow a pattern hoping to emulate that?

Once I'm out of the interview, I'll stick a post up on the Pupillage Pages about how it went.

Wish me luck!

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Who's naughty, who's nice?

In my post this morning, I wrote about how rare it is for Sets to actually keep candidates informed, and I used QEB Hollis Whiteman as an example of one Chambers that is getting it right.

In the comments, a couple of other Sets were also applauded for their efforts.

So, I've started a new project - at the top of the blog, just underneath the title, you'll see a new menu bar - so far with only two items:

1) Blog (self explanatory)

I've started "Praiseworthy Chambers" as a way of recognising those Sets that actually go out of their way to make things easier for applicants. I don't mean Sets that send out rejections, that should be the very minimum standard; I mean Sets that do something a little bit more than the bare minimum.

So far three Sets make an appearance, if you want to nominate any more please do email me, tweet me or comment on the new page.

And no, before you ask, I will not be creating a 'Wall of Shame' for Sets that do even less than the bare minimum - that will get me into trouble!

Another heart-attack thanks to QEB

QEB Hollis Whiteman, star of this post from a month ago, have once again sent out a "we'll be in touch soon" email. Once again, spying the email titile: "Pupillage Interviews QEBHW", my heart began to beat at a prodigiously rapid rate.

Now over the shock, I have nothing but praise for their efforts at keeping candidates informed. No other Set that I have applied to has made such efforts to try to put applicants at ease, and no other Set has been so willing to offer such detailed information on their timetable - speaking to friends applying to non-criminal Sets, their experience is largely the same: Sets just don't communicate about pupillage. Many Sets don't even bother to tell you if you've been rejected (despite being able to do so with just a couple of clicks on the Pupillage Portal).

So, what this means is that people in my position get used to Sets being beyond useless, and we expect nothing. Thus, when Chambers like QEB actually go out of their way to contact us, it comes as such a shock that we become a couple of years closer to our graves.

Irrespective of the news Sets send me, I only hope that they might all, one day, emulate QEB in the way they communicate that news.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Ceiling patterns

Unlike most people in my position, it is not the quest for pupillage that keeps me up at night, staring mindlessly at the ceiling while Ladyfemale dozes next to me, merrily giggling to herself as a result of some insane dream. Don't get me wrong, pupillage applications are worrying enough to keep even the most serene of people awake until 2am - but, for me, there is a darker shadow looming just this side of the horizon that I just can't ignore:

The results of the Civil Litigation Exam from my BPTC.

In the days following the exam, there was a lot of chat online - there seemed to be a groundswell of support for the idea that the Civil Exam was 'unfair' or 'not fit for purpose'. The complaints have been well rehearsed in all the usual places, but a good summary can be found on the excellent Legal Cheek blog in this post.

As you can see in the linked post, there were various concerns about the exams that were centrally set by the BSB (Civil, Crime, Ethics), and those concerns resulted in a student petition signed by many hundreds of students. I wasn't one of them - firstly because I thought it was appallingly written, and secondly because I didn't agree with many of the complaints. My only cause for concern was that I found the Civil exam difficult, which was to be expected.

However, in the weeks and months since my concern has grown - there have been a number of rumours flying around, and a few hints from tutors at various law schools, which have caused my minor quibbles to grow into a state which can best be described as 'the brink of panic'.

BPTC students who participate in, or simply look at, various online fora and networking sites will be no stranger to the rumours that 80% of BPTC students nationwide have failed the Civil Exam. Now, I'd normally ignore this kind of rumour, but it's appeared from so many different sources that it's managed to seep into my psyche.

There are, however, two versions of the rumour: a) flat out, 80% of people have failed; b) 80% of people failed according to the mark scheme, but [insert any number of solutions here] has happened, so now that figure is markedly reduced.

The second cause of worry ties into rumour "b" above - the supposed rigidity of the BSB mark scheme, and the fact that markers from individual providers have no discretion to award marks. On the last day of the course, BPP hosted an end of year drinks party (much fun), and some of the tutors were slightly more loose-tongued than normal.

I challenged 2 or 3 tutors with the 80% statistic and the response was pretty uniform: "That is definitely NOT the case at BPP", but all of them did (whether through word, or subtle deed) seem to confirm that there were some worries about the rigidity of the mark scheme. My understanding is that the BSB has prescribed very a very specific form of words to use in each of the questions, and if those exact words aren't used, marks can't be awarded. Which is petrifying.

Now, I also know that BPP, and all the other law schools have been consulting with the BSB over the last couple of months, and have been trying to make things a little bit more fair. 

From my other results to date, achieving an Outstanding is genuinely within my reach. Sadly, one failure, any failure, irrespective of the exam, means you can't be awarded the Outstanding, even if your average mark is above the 85% mark. Also, it'll be pretty tricky explaining to various Chambers why I can't give them my final results after 5 July if I have indeed joined the massed throng of Civil failures. 

So here I am, wondering whether my original answers were in line with the mark scheme; if they weren't in line with the mark scheme has the mark scheme been adjusted; if it hasn't been adjusted, have I failed, if I've failed have I buggered up my pupillage chances? And that, dear friends, is why I find the ceiling so incredibly interesting at 2am.

A particular set of skills

In my most recent post at the Pupillage Pages (I've submitted it, but I don't think it's up yet) I quoted the film 300 as my title. In this post, you get Liam Neeson's masterpiece (my words, not his): Taken.

I say "masterpiece", what I actually mean is: it's got one very cool speech during a phone call, and then Liam Neeson chasing some nasty Europeans. Hooray for him. Anyhow, I quote this film not because of anything directly relevant to the Bar, but because of a conversation I had with an American friend of mine based entirely upon a very simple, probably very common, misunderstanding for Barristers, and Baby-Barristers like me.

I met up with a few friends at lunchtime last Thursday, one of whom (Jerry) is an American chap who was only in town for a few days. I don't know Jerry that well, he's more of a friend of a friend, and our only chance at catching up is the odd brief chat every couple of years when he's in town. Nonetheless, he's pleasant company and I enjoy seeing him. Our conversation went thus:

"Mini, what are you up to now? Still working in the House of Commons?"
"No, I left there a couple of years ago to finish qualifying as a Barrister - I finished last Friday, in fact"
"It took you two years to qualify? I thought it'd be much quicker than that"
"Yeah, I've had to do a couple of courses"
"That's quite a change from what you were doing before"
"Well, yeah, I suppose so - instead of writing speeches for other people I get to work for myself now"
"Like freelancing?"
"Yeah, most Barristers in England are self-employed"
"Really? In the States most of them are directly employed"
"Yep, the thought is it gives you a certain independence, so you can provide a better service"
"I wouldn't have thought it would have mattered that much. I don't care if someone's independent, just get on with it. So, when you're training, if you're self employed, who provides the equipment"
"Well, you don't really need to dress up for the training stage, that comes once you're qualified, and the training provider gives you all the books."
"I see. It's probably good you don't need to carry around all your own equipment"
"Yeah, lots of qualified Barristers have wheeled suitcases and things. But yeah, for now, it's largely a skills based course, it's just a case of learning, and then thinking on your feet if you ever get a job"
"Thinking on your feet? In the States they just take their orders and get on with it"
"You'd be surprised - although you do have to follow instructions, there is a bit of leeway in how you present things. You also don't have to follow plainly mad instructions."
"Like super-skinny-double-shot-wet-mocha-caramel-latte-with-extra-resentment?"
"You know, ludicrous coffee orders"
"Why would I be making coffee?"

Barrister/Barista. Whatever.

Thursday, 7 June 2012


As you might have seen in my other blog over on the pupillage pages, last Friday I got some good news: my first pupillage interview.

Well, in an unexpected turn of events, this morning I woke up to an email with yet more good news - sent at 5 minutes to midnight last night. Do these barristers have nothing better to do with their evenings than email people that want to steal their work from underneath them?

Anyhow, that leaves my statistics at 1 rejection, 2 interviews, 13 to hear from.

I am still utterly pessimistic, though.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

And now for something completely different...

After the black hole of charisma this morning I thought I'd wander along the river to Tower Bridge mags.

Silly me. The magistrates sat at 2pm, by 2.05 both trials listed for this afternoon in Court 1 had collapsed.

Magical scenes.

In my respectful submission

I'm sat in Court 3 at Southwark Crown Court and am witnessing the world's worst attempt at a Voir Dire (hearing on what evidence can be included/excluded). The prosecution advocate is a CPS Solicitor Advocate and she's beyond dreadful. Every single sentence begins: "and, your honour, in my respectful submission...".

Every bloody sentence. Lesson number one at Bar School is: 'if you say 'respectfully' it means you think your judge is an idiot'.

The defence counsel (probably no more than 4 or 5 years call herself) is just playing with her. Every application has gone her way and half the prosecution evidence has been excluded.

In my irrelevant opinion, advocacy should be, at the very least, engaging. The quality of prosecution today makes me want to hide under a rock until it all goes away.