Barristers or baristas: life for junior criminal defence counsel on strike
Chaynee Hodgetts shares one story of junior criminal barristers’ uncertain future
It’s August/September 2022 (at the time of writing). The CBA’s ‘Days of Action’ are now ‘Weeks of Action.’ I’m a temporarily out-of-work member of the criminal Bar. In a noisy bar. Criminal defence, to be exact. My local, to be precise. ‘Lay down Sally’ is playing, I’m trying to find an interim job or ‘side hustle’ to survive – and I’ve been followed online by an account that makes ‘off the peg, or made to measure, fully lined bodybuilding trunks’ (@anneluckypants, if you’re interested). As Talking Heads once said, “How did I get here?” Metaphorically, you tell me…
By way of backstory, I came across to the ‘dark side’ of the criminal Bar, having been a law lecturer for over a decade, doing my Bar School training part time. Little did I know what I was letting myself in for. Would I do it again if I knew? On paper, I’d say I don’t know. In conversation, I’d say hell yes. After an interesting pupillage, I finally found a home with my current chambers – and my beloved clerking team – responsible for the preservation of my sanity some days, thanks to the invaluable diary management of court listings. When we’re actually in court, that is…
Mary the Hover Fairy
I could flippantly and frivolously blame my career choice on Mary the Hover Fairy from the 1987 13-episode wonder that was children’s clown animation, Charlie Chalk. Of the choice of residents of the isle of Merrytwit, Captain Mildred (allegedly a parody of Margaret Thatcher) seemed somewhat staunch even back then, despite kindly receiving a carefully knitted version of the latter from my Nan (Captain Mildred, that is – not Margaret Thatcher). Mary the Hover Fairy was the island’s human superglue, bearing a small helicopter rotor on her hat, such was her need to get about swiftly. Described by the internet as: “an old fairy who often proves useful… provided her magic wand, Houdini, hasn’t wandered off again,” replace ‘wand’ with ‘wig’ and it’s probably about right. Humour aside, despite the ego which abounds in the profession (of which there is much, among many), there is also an element of the fixer – the (literal) caped crusader, the bleeding heart, or even the do-gooder – in all of us who do crime (and here, I mean, those who practise it). The juxtaposition of this with the mayhem that is so often our personal and family lives only crystallises the commitment needed to cling on to continue a career as criminal counsel.
Barristers’ ‘Weeks of Action’
As Sam Smith once sang, “I know I’m not the only one…” This is not a political piece, nor am I a publicly political beast. I don’t watch TV, rarely check the news, and survive the daily torrent of turbulence by fielding it by day and forgetting it by night. So I’ll say no more – but the Criminal Bar Association website (and an excellent guest blog on The Secret Barrister by Joanna Hardy-Susskind) explain the rhyme and reason far more eloquently than I ever could. As this piece, after innumerable incarnations, eventually went to press, Dave Fendem’s Dirty Briefs added, very viscerally, to the stable of books on our narrative. We are where we are. Which, as I write this, is on full-on walkout action on Crown Court Legal Aid cases, for criminal defence barristers. Some of us booked ourselves on a fortnight’s leave, unwitting (or, in some cases, half suspecting) of what lay ahead, just to plan the diary so desperate cases were safely adjourned off, to prevent any need to make some unmakeable decisions in cases where we’re desperately needed. Most of my friends ‘persecute’ – the friendly, between-lawyers, term for prosecuting – arguably more reliably paid, and unaffected by the ongoing action – which covers defence barristers only. Most people do a bit of both anyway – but those who do are increasingly going over to that side full time just now, in order to make it through. For those of us who have never prosecuted, and nor really ever practised outside of crime, things have suddenly got very, very interesting. So what to do?
Things can only get better?
Nursing the glass of wine that was my birthday treat in advance, in the alternative to ‘doing something’ (the day itself subsequently being spent on the phone to the bank and HMRC, followed by a hot mess), with the prospect of a year of change ahead, perhaps D:Ream were right, back in the day – maybe things can only get better? As if aware of my aspiration, now the bar tune turns to ‘Dizzy’ by Vic Reeves. The irony isn’t lost on me – this being the first track on the CD permanently jammed in my car – an old, safe and sensible one kindly passed to me, with an “under new ownership” look which gets me serially stopped by suspicious police more often than I’d like. Usually on blue lights. In my own road. And I will be forever haunted by Vic blasting out as soon as I turn the ignition on when giving anyone a lift. Mind you, I’m grateful every time the car starts – sometimes it doesn’t. And don’t even mention the time the garage had to come out because all four windows got jammed down when the battery packed up in a rainstorm – right outside the house…
Expect to self-rescue
I tried applying for part-time jobs at home-home (outside of London). At points throughout the Bar training ‘journey,’ I had to have a second (and, at one point, even a third) job – always adapting the hours to prioritise the necessary preparation – and I was not alone in that respect. But having a second job should not need to be the case once in practice. What does that say of our criminal justice process, where it’s necessary to find extra work to subsidise one’s survival, simply because of falling on one side of the fight? It's probably as well my PT job here at Solicitors Journal is a labour of love, with a wonderful team – but the Weeks of Action meant something more had to be sought.
Just weeks before this, during the ‘Days of Action’ (when we could still work on some days) I had, in the court car park, sprinted past one of the local area’s most renowned barristers (who I’d never met) having a chat in his car, to instructing solicitors, no doubt – bearing one of my learned friend’s 50p. Explain? I must. Having parked on the 2-hour-only car park for the ’quickest of hearings,’ I realised, one hour in, that, to be fair to the client, I was going nowhere, fast, and only had £1. Enough – until the machine ate it. Cue going round the Robing Room, asking if anyone had change for a fiver – and Alex, my enthused work experience lad fumbling in his pocket (not that I would ever have gone there – a parking ticket would have been preferable to inconveniencing him). ‘You can pay on the app, you know!’ piped up Johnny, another renowned old hand (not that he’d take kindly to being described as such, not looking too shabby for his age). What Johnny didn’t know is that I’d already tried the ruddy app – and had more in the centre console change of my car than I did in my account that very morning (though these things can fluctuate, depending on whether, and which of, one’s solicitors, have paid, or not paid, their bills). I read a badge recently, sewn onto a medical colleague’s aircraft suit: ‘Expect to self-rescue.’ It rang true.
That day, thankfully, I didn’t have to – thanks only to the understanding of a colleague. Mary (who I suspect understood far more about anything than she made out she did), amidst the boys’ jokes, handed me a 50p – for which I gave her a fiver, which she, incredibly annoyingly, wouldn’t accept, as it wasn’t in change. I still owe her 50p – and it will be repaid. Her kindness allowed my hearing to take place. It got called on while I was at the parking meter. My student (who had my phone number) sent me a message - on LinkedIn (who checks LinkedIn on an emergency dash to the car park?). I only realised when I turned to see him, like a sharply suited semblance of Michelangelo’s Vitruvian man, waving, with both arms, through the floor-length glass window of the upper floor of the courtroom – the universal gesture for ‘We’re on, and you’re f***ed.’ Thankfully, on this occasion, the combination of my kindly colleague and student had conspired to tell the Judge about the 50p debacle – such that he allowed 5 minutes, as he ‘knew about the parking, and there was no hurry…’
Appreciative but aghast at having had to rely on the kindness of a fellow female counsel, who perhaps understood my mess, without words, I applied for ‘emergency support’ from one of the professional bodies. After an epic night of filling in forms, exposing my innermost private business, I received a response, in the negative, for having somehow not met the criteria. How could that possibly be, I asked myself? It was then I signed up for a loan, and took my Indeed and LinkedIn temp job application endeavours to the next level. 999 call handler? Absolutely, without a doubt. Waitress? Yes, please. Children’s’ Entertainer? All right then... And yet, in the background to all this, in the ‘working’ weeks, people’s lives prevailed, in yet another day in court.
The Ladies’ Robing Room
On my last job before ‘annual leave’ (mostly a fortuitously-timed long-standing diary booking, albeit briefly extended, as my protective mechanism to prevent the imminent all-out walkout from crucifying the most precarious of my clients), I had a Very Wobbly Day. After a challenging week, for many reasons I won’t go into (for others’ sake as much as my own), I had a long-awaited sentence, where, for many reasons I won’t go into (for confidentiality as much as professional duty), I hoped (beyond hope) the Client would walk out of the doors with me. I knew, deep down, it was a hope beyond hope – as did he. Mr X got a stint in prison. As I came up from the cells that day, my resolve melting like my foundation, thanks to the heat of the garb, I went to the public area ladies’ loos – and faced two choices. Go off into a conference room and cry (tempting) – or go into the ladies’ robing room and take my chances, in the hope some of the senior juniors’ composure would passively rub off on me and dry my eyes with blinking. I chose the latter – and perhaps, in so doing, chose a lot more, little did I realise it at the time.
Rita, a beneath-wig-bandana-bearing babe of a barrister, saw my wobbliness and said all the right things, while saying nothing at all of what was on my mind. She didn’t need to – she got it, and spoke of her own experiences (of law and life) to assuage my own. Helen – an example of elegance – came in later, when I was alone, as Rita got called on, a former nurse, echoed my own thoughts with her ‘empathetic language’ as I realised I had left my driving licence (my ID for the cells) in the public ladies’ loos - and ran to find it was still there where I’d inadvertently left it. Not for the first time, my gratitude for the seeming honesty of the majority of people who find themselves in the criminal courts grew. As I sat ‘writing my Attendance Note’ (picking gingerly at the keyboard and staring into space), she too, said just enough – her elegant expression belying the experience of having attending to thousands of medical mishaps, sometimes in extremis, before reconciling herself, like the rest of us, to a life of (defending) crime – or rather, seeing the full spectrum of humanity. Next in tumbled Pav, wincing gingerly from toothache. For once, I was able to help someone, fumbling in my bag for the snipped-out packet pair of paracetamol tucked away for the times when, for some, period pains periodically pierce the process of the pursuit of ‘justice.’ Whatever that is. Whoever’s side you’re on. I’m not the worst. I’ve ‘lost’ (as in, had immediate custody on) only a small handful of clients in the past year. It could be worse. But, like a sheepdog, I just want to get back to the field. That, ominously, was our last day – who knew for how long?
Let it be…?
Back to reality. In the bar, a man comes over, offering a table. I politely declined, intending to stay only as long as my nursed drink remained, typing, laptop on knee, pecking away like some desperate bird. An elderly gent, Frankie, from the local hospital radio, came over and asked for a song request. ‘Return to Sender,’ I offered, placatingly (thinking Motörhead or Madness probably wasn’t his scene). He tells me it was once Adele’s choice on a radio phone-in, and to listen to hospital radio at 7pm on a Wednesday (I look forward to it), before departing gracefully, as a gentleman should. My keyboard clattered on for a while, transfixing and transporting me to the place only writing can.
Suddenly, a commotion. It’s closing time. Time to leave - the criminal Bar paying abominably, for average hours worked – and the local now steadily closing. What now? A Control + Alt + Delete would be as tempting as it is forgivable for so many of my friends who have left and ‘got proper jobs’ – not the sort of I’m currently craving, a lively interlude of hard graft to let me live just enough to later pick up my bat cape and wig – but the sort of stable, settled job that lasts until retirement with a stable pension. Time to make a decision. Where to go? A ‘proper job’ in a local council somewhere? Or the jobs for which all my applications so far have received a ‘no’? I’m about to leave the bar (not the Bar – albeit by the skin of my teeth). Perhaps if somebody lets me be a waitress, or barista, or fitness instructor, I might just be able to keep it going – and in the future too - because anyone in crime who tries to pretend they’re anything other than a fantastically flawed, f***ed up, formidable human being (as so many of us are) has, like our last Crown Court Friday, already left the (robing) room by now. “Turn the lights off when you leave!” they called. But maybe I’m still dancing? Even if I’m just dancing in the dark? Nobody knows how long the barristers’ action will go on, or how many junior criminal defence counsel will cling on with their nails to still be there at the end. One thing’s for sure – for the junior criminal Bar the future has never been more uncertain. The song changes. It’s ‘Let it be.’ Perhaps I’ll stay. Just until the end. Perhaps if I hold on a little longer, I might just make it through. And so, I persist. I do my best, and I let it be - perhaps the best whispered words of wisdom we have to survive this…
After reaching the low point of borrowing loo roll from kindly folk in late September, and buying a Soreen loaf (gratefully pictured) with Tesco Clubcard points at Birmingham New Street as several meals’ food on a long-range strike-exempt Magistrates’ Court day, the author, who was willing to continue to strike, and considered writing this under a pseudonym (but didn’t), applied to a different source of support – the CBA Hardship Fund – whose kindness was sufficient to cover her rent. For this, she wishes to express her immense gratitude to those who contributed, adding: “We’ve all been affected adversely by the situation – so thank you to those colleagues, whose names I will never know, whose immense kindness in donating to the CBA Hardship Fund helped so greatly, at a time when I had little left. Thank you, infinitely, for your help...”
The author remained, by the skin of her teeth, in criminal defence practice. As well as this and working for Solicitors Journal, she is also pursuing non-law sidelines for sustainability of work. She remains an eternal, if misguided, optimist.
Chaynee Hodgetts is a criminal barrister (writing this Opinion from a personal perspective), honorary lecturer, and features & opinion editor with Solicitors Journal: linkedin.com/in/ch-law
* Names, personal descriptions and details have been changed to protect confidentiality.