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Chaynee Hodgetts

Features and Opinion Editor & Barrister, Solicitors Journal & Libertas Chambers

Quotation Marks
Since 2020, I have been involved in the leading challenges to Encrochat evidence which have taken an extraordinary amount of time to resolve. [Simon Csoka KC]

SJ interview: Simon Csoka KC and Marc King

SJ Interview
SJ interview: Simon Csoka KC and Marc King


Chaynee Hodgetts interviews Simon Csoka KC and Marc King of Libertas Chambers

CH: Thank you both for making time to speak with us. Today’s SJ interview is a little different, in that we’re hearing from two of you – Simon Csoka KC, head of chambers at Libertas Chambers – and also Marc King, director of clerking at Libertas Chambers. Simon, let’s begin with you – what’s your current practice area?

SC KC: I tend to be engaged defending SFO fraud prosecutions and serious complex crime. I like cases that are a real challenge whether that is evidential, legal or notoriety. Whether it’s acting for a footballer or a solicitor, the stakes can be high. Since 2020, I have been involved in the leading challenges to Encrochat evidence which have taken an extraordinary amount of time to resolve. This has been a fascinating and unprecedented process, which has involved challenges in the Court of Appeal and the Investigatory Powers Tribunal. It is unprecedented, because so many people have been arrested based on evidence which was not gathered or understood by UK law enforcement. It is the first time the regime for interception and equipment interference has been challenged in any comprehensive way. The technical challenge has been fascinating – and has required a lot of learning about computer science and cryptography.

CH: How did Libertas Chambers begin?

SC KC: We set it up in the middle of the first lockdown in 2020. The courts had been closed for several months – and it meant that for once there was time to take a step back and assess what was the best way to run a practice. It was obvious chambers buildings were seldom used, even before the lockdown. It was also obvious that it was generally better to see clients and solicitors either near where they were, or by Zoom. The lockdown made everyone appreciate the value of technology and the benefit of working more efficiently. It seemed clear to us that the way forward was with a virtual chambers, with offices around the country. We created everything in the cloud, so that all aspects of chambers could be managed remotely and more efficiently. At the same time, we kept the same high standard of clerking, so that the connections with our solicitors remained the same. We received some criticism at first, but many others have since followed our lead.

CH: Which areas of law does Libertas cover?

SC KC: We cover all areas of criminal defence now – but with an emphasis upon business crime. We tend to be in the main fraud cases. Initially, we had no junior-juniors – but we have expanded substantially now at all levels. Additionally, there are specialists in regulatory work, resisting asset recovery and freezing, international law and overseas criminal defence such as in the Caribbean.

CH: What sets Libertas apart from other sets, in your opinion?

SC KC: The efficiency with which we operate, the expertise of our members – and the quality of the clerking team.

CH: How did you become a barrister?

SC KC: I was argumentative and rebellious at school and university. It seemed the natural career path, to be paid for what I enjoyed doing. I couldn’t bear the thought of working in an office.

CH: What do you enjoy most about practice at the criminal Bar? 

SC KC: The fact that you rarely do the same thing. Every case is different, every client is different, and you are closely involved in events that are rarely experienced by most people. You have a connection with your clients at a time when their lives are in crisis. The tension of the moment before a verdict is delivered is like nothing else – and the relief of an acquittal is huge. The most satisfying times are the cross-examinations that have decisively changed the course of a case.

CH: What do you find most challenging about practice at the criminal Bar?

SC KC: Inefficiencies in service of evidence and late disclosure. Often the last thing that your client wants is an adjournment. Inefficiencies by the prosecution can put huge pressure on the defence. Evenings and weekends can just disappear.

CH: Which cases are particularly memorable? 

SC KC: Defending Dale Cregan will always be memorable. Cases like that never leave you.

Also, defending a senior prison officer charged with gross negligence manslaughter in a prisoner suicide sticks in my mind. He was in a state of acute depression throughout the trial. It is the only time I have had a jury that read out a statement after they acquitted; they called for an inquiry into systemic failures and under-resourcing of prisons.

Joey Barton’s acquittal at Sheffield Crown Court last year was also memorable. The press were there with their stories already written. The jury listened to the evidence - and not the stories about his reputation. It showed how important juries are.

CH: What would your advice be to new starters to the Bar – or new solicitor-advocates?

SC KC: Try to avoid writing out your questions for cross-examination – and listen to the answers a witness gives. I have seen some cross-examinations which proceed in a way the barrister predicted in advance – even though the answers were not what was predicted. It is far better to have a list of points or themes – and a few references – on a single sheet of paper. Formulate the questions as you go on, based on the answer that you have just listened to intently. Killer questions can be missed by not listening. Ask some open questions – it can expose a liar who has not thought through in detail that part of the narrative. The witness is likely to give a silly answer. The best cross-examination and advocacy are opportunistic – and aided by a good short-term memory.

CH: How do you think solicitors and barristers can optimise how they work together?

SC KC: I think they largely have, in my experience. It is much more collaborative throughout the process than it used to be. When I started it was just an Advice on evidence and then the trial. Now we are in discussions from an early stage – and often pre-charge too. Having online discussions has changed everything.

CH: What do you do to ensure work-life balance when you're not working?

SC KC: I enjoy challenging hiking – and try to walk in areas where I don’t see any other hikers for the whole day, other than those who are with me. It’s the best way to clear your head and de-stress, especially if there is some risk that forces you to focus on the moment. I can be on a hike for nine hours, leading a walk, with no phone signal – and not think about work once.  

CH: What one thing do most people not know about you?

SC KC: I started a hiking group which now has over 7,000 members and regularly lead hard walks.

CH: What one thing do you wish you'd known before now?

SC KC: Lots – but I don’t like to dwell on things!

CH: What’s next for you?

SC KC: Hopefully to get to the bottom of Encrochat with Professor Ross Anderson of Cambridge University – and then defending a serious fraud.

Thanks for sharing your insights with our readers, Simon – now let’s turn to Marc. Marc, thank you for speaking to us too. Please tell us about you and your current role?

MK: April will mark 40 years of clerking, which has seen many changes over the years! There have been challenges at various times – and difficult decisions have been made, which, in the main, have resulted in the right outcome. The most recent was when I was invited to join Libertas as Director of Clerking – the best decision yet, as the last two years have shown.

CH: What sets Libertas apart from other sets, in your opinion?

MK: Libertas was formed during the first lockdown in 2020. It was obvious to many the traditional way of running a criminal chambers would need to change. We moved away from high rents and empty rooms, into a new modern, flexible operation, with low overheads for members – but still keeping a strong clerking team who can operate from around the country, enabling us to service our clients nationally, while using the latest technology to connect the clerks throughout the day.

Libertas have six serviced offices around the country which members use regularly to come together for meetings and to work, rather than one building based in central London which many would never visit, but still would have contributed significantly to running costs. Several others have now taken the blueprint – and many others have downsized, as, slowly the criminal Bar realise it is client service which is the priority – and not large empty premises.

We also have monthly well-attended online webinars to keep our clients informed of latest developments in the law, while also giving our new solicitors contact with barristers they have never met before.

CH: How did you first become a clerk?

MK: It is a long time ago now – and I fell into clerking, rather than setting out to make a career of it! My first senior clerk, Norman Brooks, who probably had the biggest influence over me, is still a very good friend. I played football on a Sunday morning with him, along with another Senior Clerk, Michael Hannibal, who told me there was a position available with Norman and asked if I was interested. The interview was in the Clachan pub, where I was told, if I took the job, any ideas of playing football at a high level would end. Never has one statement been more correct – as the hours needed to succeed in this profession are long and tiring – and often impact on personal lives.

CH: What do you most enjoy about your role?

MK: I set out to make Libertas stand out from the rest in our field of law. This gives me the drive to work alongside our many talented members, enhancing their careers – whether that is planning long term goals, such as taking silk or developing new practice areas. I am passionate about helping people, making things happen and finding solutions to serious problems.

CH: What do you find most challenging about your role?

MK: No matter how well you have done in the past, it is all in the past – and it is only the future that everyone is interested in. To keep high standards across chambers is difficult – and a constant challenge to anyone in the clerking profession. Another challenge all clerks face is supporting junior members of chambers to develop, in a system that pays very little at the outset – and encouraging them to seek experience rather than rushing to get up the ladder too quickly, which may affect their long-term career.

CH: What is a typical working day like for you?

MK: I am up early – and in the gym or on my Peloton, as this sets me up for the day. No two days are ever the same – and that is what makes this job so challenging and interesting. My phone, emails and texts will start from 7am, often until 11pm. In truth, although this is sometimes tiring, if this was not the way, I would be concerned – as if I’m not being contacted, the work isn’t coming. I have a very good clerks team that runs the day-to-day diary, while I focus on the long term planning of diaries and marketing. Often the mornings are spent talking to members or solicitors – then with lunch or evening meetings, or travelling around the country to meet new and old clients. The working day is not just Monday to Friday, 9-6pm, but often several evenings – and at least two weekends a month spent at various events with clients. There is no typical working day – but an ever-changing situation you learn to adapt to! When the opportunity arises, though, I do enjoy taking an evening off and cooking.

CH: What would your advice be to solicitors seeking to work with you?

MK: Many solicitors who have worked for me over the years will know I am accessible 24/7, including when away on vacation. Always pick up the phone to discuss any problems or future work. No problem is too big or too small.

CH: Are you involved in any charitable work?

MK: In the past, my brainchild along with Scott Ewing, of Ewing Law, was the White-Collar Boxing event, which raised £480k for various charities. I support several events throughout the year, with donations or taking tables to support the occasion – and raise money for good causes.

CH: What would your advice be to new barristers?

MK: Young people coming into the criminal Bar do so now at probably the toughest time, as legal aid fees at entry level are so low. Many will not survive – and will find careers in other sectors. I have spoken to many and advised them to find an area of law which is not so demanding and more rewarding – but they all have a passion and want to live that dream. I have heard it so many times – and yet even those with talent find it difficult to survive the long hours working late into the night and travelling around the country.

The advice I can give is to listen to senior members when given advice on how to approach problems in cases – and make sure all paperwork is completed well in advance. Be accessible to solicitors who want to contact you. When being taken on from pupillage, the next two years are going to be the hardest, as you will need to work harder then than ever to establish contacts and pave a way for the future. Work closely with your clerks – as a team you will overcome all hurdles and shape the practice you are looking for. I would also add that, if ever you’re not sure, always just pick up the phone and ask someone – better safe than sorry!

CH: Tell us about your favourite heads of chambers you have clerked:

MK: The best head of chambers was Richard ‘Dick’ Ferguson KC. I wish I had clerked him 20 years before as he was such a character. I first met him in 2004 – and he sadly passed away in 2009. He was described as a formidable advocate – and we enjoyed the short time we had, not only landing some very high-profile cases – but I thoroughly enjoyed dining out with him, listening to the many stories he had to tell not just from cases he had been in but from his incredibly varied life.

That brings me on to Simon Csoka KC, who is head of Libertas (and from whom you have just heard!). Again, I'm honoured to have such a bright talent to be able to clerk. He also, like Dick, attracts work in his own name – and some may say doesn't need a clerk. I'm there to hopefully take him to another level – and stretch him further with different areas of law. Again, it is a pleasure to have him at the helm – and we both share the same goal of making Libertas a success with a bright future.

CH: What are the most memorable experiences from your career so far?

MK: Over the years there have been great experiences. Some may not be suitable for print, but have been great times, with many friends made along the way. If I have to name a few:

  • The charity work I have supported has brought a lot of satisfaction in enabling those not so fortunate to have a better life.
  • Joining Libertas – we were only just setting up during the pandemic, which meant the odds were stacked against us. I literally had a mobile phone and a piece of paper for the diary, along with my son Louis, who started his clerking career from scratch. It was a big challenge for everyone involved, but we all shared the vision – and two years later, we have doubled in size and have a very bright future.
  • Setting up a three-day asset recovery seminar, raising £65k in sponsorship to pay for the event, with guest speakers from all over the world - a big ask in a market I had never worked in before.

CH: What’s your proudest achievement?

MK: I am not sure it counts as an achievement on the work front – but I will never forget the case I managed to secure for chambers after attending a marketing event at Cartmel races, when a solicitor told me that there were potentially two more soldiers about to be questioned in relation to the death in custody of Baha Mousa, and Operation Telic. One soldier was stationed in the Falkland Islands, so contact with him was remote and difficult. The other was attached to a battalion in a remote part of the UK. From only having his name to go on, and before the days of Google, I used the old-fashioned directory enquiries to chase down all matching names in that part of the country to try to locate him. Eventually, 30 or more phone calls later, I made contact with his parents, who informed me that he was away on manoeuvres in the Brecon Beacons. I then contacted the army base and found that he was uncontactable for the next four days on training, but they would pass the message on to him on his return to contact me. Initial discussions with him made it apparent to me that he had no legal representation – and I was therefore able to introduce him to a solicitor and barrister who could act for him. The trial lasted many months – and he was found not guilty. We then acted in the public inquiry chaired by Sir William Gage, where again he was cleared.

This is just one example from many over my career where I have created work to generate significant revenue for chambers.

Again, I don't see it as an achievement in itself, but do take some satisfaction in having clerked over 20 people into silk. Some have been rejected four or five times – and others got it first time – but for me it is the planning that goes into it. I may sit down and plan the next three years – and that may include keeping the diary free to be able to take what is possibly the right case for the right exposure, before, for example a red judge, or a residing judge – not that the others don't hold sway, but it is always good to be backed from the highest possible available. What also needs to be mentioned is none of this is possible without the support of many solicitors who have trusted my judgement and supported me in backing many individuals over the years – so a big thank you to them, as many would have never received the letters without that support.

CH: What’s your position on mental health for legal professionals (from counsel to clerks)?

MK: People must be encouraged to take time to ensure their health and wellbeing… I lead by example and work out every day to ensure my mental and physical health are as good as they can be – and know when I need downtime.

CH: What do you do to ensure work-life balance when you're not working?

MK: I don’t like to complicate things too much so, sporting-wise, I play golf, follow Chelsea along with my son, home, away and abroad – and enjoy a night away at a spa, or out at a good restaurant.

CH: What one thing do most people not know about you?

MK: I enjoy big game fishing, shark diving and spear fishing.

CH: What one thing do you wish you'd known before now?

MK: That you only work harder in this industry the more experienced you become. The challenges get greater and more complex, but more rewarding.

Simon Csoka KC, head of chambers, and Marc King, director of clerking, both at Libertas Chambers, were interviewed by Chaynee Hodgetts, our features & opinion editor and barrister with Libertas Chambers: