Colin Witcher describes a day in his life as a barrister

Colin Witcher
By: Colin Witcher April 2, 2024

Colin Witcher provides a snapshot of a day in his life as a criminal barrister, including his working relationship with solicitors in and outside of court, in BCL Legal’s ‘The Brief’.

8.09am and my morning ritual of losing myself in the world of film trailers on YouTube with a coffee was interrupted by the ringing of my mobile phone. The Senior Partner of one of my instructing solicitors questioned how I could be this cheery so early in the morning. This was a remark no doubt prompted by my elongated enthusiastic Gooooood Morning, as I answered the phone. I joked that barristers are often up working since 5am and that it was practically the afternoon. I’m sure that’s right, but admittedly I had had a more leisurely start that day and my laptop was still firmly closed.

After pleasantries we discussed the issue at hand – we had both been reviewing several thousand pages of recently disclosed material. We had both been unable to locate a document. We reassured each other, that, if we both could not find the document, it simply could not be there. How likely was it that both Counsel and Solicitor would have missed the document: impossible we agreed. A plan of action was decided.

Phone calls like these are often my favourite part of working life. Too often life can become a continual stream of emails: a virtual existence. There’s no tone. No laughter. No passing remarks such as “how’s the family”. I much prefer a phone call with, if necessary, a short email confirming anything discussed or the agreed next steps. A phone call with a solicitor can often also allow you to cut quickly to the heart of issue, bounce ideas around, and identify problems before they develop. I’m also conscious that emails have the inherent risk of being misunderstood: a quickly sent message, misread as abrupt. An invitation to do something, misread as a demand.

I left home at 9am, the luxury of being mid-trial at a court just 20 minutes from home. I phoned my Junior for a different forthcoming trial once I had arrived – he was covering a mention hearing later that day and we needed to agree on our approach. At Court, with permission from the Judge, I entered the Courtroom a little late, so that I could virtually attend a hearing elsewhere. In that case I was being led by King’s Counsel. As I took my seat in the trial, I had by 10.45am, been Leader, Junior, Sole Counsel, and phone advisor – and dealt with four different cases. I wondered if I had earned a cake at the morning break. The question was not pondered for long. Chocolate, not cake, was plainly the answer. The trial resumed after the morning break.

In trials, the instructing solicitor is often as important, if not more so, than the barrister. We are only as good as the support and the work that has been done in advance of trial. Admittedly, we often receive the lion’s share of praise, a little like the surgeon who performs the complex surgery, with too little thanks often given to the anaesthetist, the consultant, the nurses, and the GP. For my part, I am grateful for comprehensive instructions prepared by solicitors. I need not only a coherent account of the client’s case, but also welcome express comments on the evidence, cross-referred to witness statements and exhibits.

In my trial we are approaching the end of the Prosecution’s case, and I am therefore reviewing my detailed instructions in anticipation of the defendant’s case beginning. The clarity, detail, and comprehensive commentary is reassuring. It allows me to finesse my examination-in-chief plan, which in effect serves as my road map for ensuring that I can advance my client’s case in the best possible way. I raise a few matters with the solicitor from Court – he responds quickly, following through on his promise to be on standby. It is unusual, in criminal cases, to have a solicitor attending at Court every day. Their working days do not allow the perceived luxury of sitting behind Counsel observing the trial. It’s a shame. In my view it is not a luxury, it is if often a necessity and for many clients it is a much-needed comfort blanket – a reassuring warmth that the person who has been there for the months in the lead up to the case, is there for the critical days. Admittedly, it is also a reassuring comfort blanket for Counsel. I try whenever I can to involve my instructing solicitor at Court, even asking them directly “have I’ve missed anything” before saying the most anticipated words of any cross-examination “no further questions”. I understand however the practical reality of a solicitor being able to attend at Court; the pressure upon their time is immense and there are of course the cost implications.

After Court, rising around 4.30pm, I head into Chambers in central London. A conference awaits with a solicitor, a client, and my pupil. There was a real atmosphere in the room. This is a high-stakes case – the client is an eminent professional, facing an allegation of an unfortunate, illegal indiscretion. The solicitor and I adopt our usual routine of having a private chat first before the client arrives. The same gives us both a crucial opportunity to make sure we have a joint understanding of the evidence, that we have symmetry in our approach to the conference, and a plan for what we hope to achieve. It allows us to appear as a united pair, which is no doubt reassuring to a client. The conference starts and ends in a flash, ninety minutes flying past. As the client leaves, I utter the most profound words of the day “shall we grab a drink?”. I am not advocating drinking, but over a glass of wine (or a diet coke) one can raise a question in an informal setting, one can check in on each other, and it allows you to develop a relaxed working dynamic as a partnership. Or at least that’s what I tell myself, seeking to justify why I had a second drink of the evening, as I being the journey home.

Colin’s article was published in BCL Legal’s ‘The Brief’, 27 March 2024.

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