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The legal profession 1

There are two distinct kinds of lawyer in Britain. One of these is a solicitor. Everybody who needs a lawyer has to go to one of these. They handle most legal matters for their clients including the drawing up of documents (such as wills, divorce papers and contracts), communicating with other parties, and presenting their clients' cases in magistrates' courts. However, only since 1994 have solicitors been allowed to present cases in higher courts. If the trial is to be heard in one of these, the solicitor normally hires the services of the other kind of lawyer - a barrister. The only function of barristers is to present cases in court.

The training of the two kinds of lawyer is very different. All soli­citors have to pass the Law Society exam. They study for this exam while 'articled' to established firms of solicitors where they do much of the everyday junior work until they are qualified.

Barristers have to attend one of the four Inns of Court in London. These ancient institutions are modelled somewhat on Oxbridge col­leges. For example, although there are some lectures, the only attendance requirement is to eat dinner there on a certain number of evenings each term. After four years, the trainee barristers then sit exams. If they pass, they are ‘called to the bar’ and are recognized as barristers. However, they are still not allowed to present a case in a crown court. They can only do this after several more years of association with a senior barrister, after which the most able of them apply to 'take silk'. Those whose applications are accepted can put the letters QC (Queen’s Counsel) after their names.

Neither kind of lawyer needs a university qualification. The vast majority of barristers and most solicitors do in fact go to university, but they do not necessarily study law there. This arrangement is typically British.

The different styles of training reflect the different worlds that the two kinds of lawyer live in, and also the different skills that they develop. Solicitors have to deal with the realities of the everyday world and its problems. Most of their work is done away from the courts. They often become experts in the details of particular areas of the law. Barristers, on the other hand, live a more rarefied existence. For one thing, they tend to come from the upper strata of society. Furthermore, their protection from everyday realities is increased by certain legal rules. For example, they are not supposed to talk to any of their clients, or to their client’s witnesses, except in the presence of the solicitor who has hired them. They are experts on general principles of the law rather than on details, and they acquire the special skill of eloquence in public speaking. When they present a case in court, they, like judges, put on the archaic gown and wig which, it is supposed, emphasize the impersonal majesty of the law.

It is exclusively from the ranks of barristers that judges are appointed. Once they have been appointed, it is almost impossible for them to be dismissed. The only way that this can be done is by a resolution of both Houses of Parliament, and this is something that has never happened. Moreover, their retiring age is later than in most other occupations. They also get very high salaries. These things are considered necessary in order to ensure their independence from interference, by the state or any other party. However, the result of their background and their absolute security in their jobs is that, although they are often people of great learning and intelligence, some judges appear to have difficulty understanding the problems and circumstances of ordinary people, and to be out of step with general public opinion. The judgements and opinions that they give in court sometimes make the headlines because they are so spectacu­larly out of date. (The inability of some of them to comprehend the meaning of racial equality is one example. A senior Old Bailey judge in the 1980s once referred to black people as ‘nig-nogs’ and to some Asians involved in a case as 'murderous Sikhs'.):


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