Thursday, 27 August 2009

Barristers, language, belief and knowledge

I listened today to the BBC Radio 4 programme "Between Ourselves" (available until 2nd September on iPlayer) in which Olivia O'Leary interviewed two barristers - Nick Hilliard QC and Dexter Dias QC.

Having worked with barristers for so long, I find it interesting to hear them interviewed and to see how journalists and the world at large perceive them. Both gentlemen spoke well, but that should be no surprise for two people at the top of the advocacy profession. The presenter didn't really address the issue of the public perception of barristers, which is often that that will be tall, posh, white, and have gone to a very good school before Oxbridge. This perception can actually work against the barrister. One barrister friend, who grew up in the East end of London and certainly wasn't educated at Eton, tells the story of a disappointed client who was accused of a serious assault. My friend arrived at the detention centre to interview the client - who was massively disappointed, and said so loudly. "You can't be a proper brief, you ain't posh enough".

So there is a degree of need to allow clients (and particularly clients accused of criminal offences) to feel secure in the choice of barrister - which often involves speaking "properly". Another thing to consider, and one which was pointed out to me early in my career supporting barristers, was that the voice is the barrister's main tool. I listened to Nick Hilliard speaking and noticed that he wasn't particularly posh at all - he did, however, speak with a wonderful precision of word and expression and a clarity of diction which made what he said very clear.

I was struck, throughout the programme, by how committed both barristers seemed to the notion of justice and how little cynicism there was in their statements. This seems to be apparent throughout the profession - barristers, in general, really believe in the system and in their role as an advocate for the client. Nick (who I was lucky enough to work with at Middle Temple) made the point that the job of the defence barrister is to put the best case possible on behalf of the client. Both spoke strongly about their belief that everyone deserved the best possible defence. They articulated the difference between belief and knowledge - they may believe in the guilt of a client, but it is not their place, and must not be their place, to decide that person's fate. They do not know that their client is guilty and, for as long as he or she insists on their innocence, barristers must argue the best case for them in the best possible manner.

Of course the issue of fees was brought up. Nick was confronted with a press report that he had earned over £448k in one year. The first thing to note about this is that, as a self employed barrister, this is turnover and not salary. Barristers have to pay a noticeable share to contribute to the running of chambers and then their own expenses. That notwithstanding, Mr. Hilliard is still paid well for what he does, as he acknowledged. He is however, as is Mr. Dias, one of the best in the business. In those circumstances, and in comparison to partners in firms of solicitors or accountant, I do not thing that his remuneration is unreasonable. Look at the average Profit per Equity Partner (PEP) in the UK top 50 law firms (see here for my analysis). Even if Nick were able to keep his £448k, average PEP at many of those firms is well above that sum - and Nick is far better than an average partner. A better comparison would be a partner at the likes of Linklaters or Freshfields - both of which had average PEP of over £1million - or more than double that of a "fat cat barrister".

This posting was not intended to be a defence of the bar. I was, however, pleasantly reminded of the intelligence and commitment of good barristers - it reminded me of good committee meetings with bright people who had strong moral codes.. I enjoyed hearing both Nick and Dexter speak and felt the system was in good hands.

1 comment:

  1. What an absolute shame that this episode is not available for re-run after the date of 2nd September. It was an awesome interview which I would dearly like to catch again, particularly to put the above article into context.