Karen Steyn

Job title
Barrister, 11KBW

11KBW advises on all areas of civil practice with particular depth of experience in public law having acted, inter alia, in the leading case on the right to free elections. Along with its reputation in education law, chambers brings its expertise to bear in EU Competition and regularly advises central government, local authorities and individuals.

You have been involved in several high profile public law cases recently. What do you find most engaging about these cases?

I have been very fortunate to be instructed in so many fascinating cases, including challenges to the smoking ban, post office closures, the detainee transfer policy for Afghanistan, Heathrow’s third runway, the halting of the SFO’s investigation of BAE’s Saudi dealings, MPs’ expenses and the Guantanamo litigation.

Aspects of some of them have been brain-achingly difficult (for me anyway) but that is what has made them so stimulating. I have particularly enjoyed the opportunity to work on cases which have involved not only public law and human rights – which are the staples of my practice – but also public international, tort and EU law.

Aside from the absorbing legal and factual content, what I have found most appealing has been the chance to work with teams of hugely talented yet unassuming people.


What have you found most challenging about working on these cases?

Perhaps predictably, the most challenging feature has been keeping the quantity of work within reasonable limits. But I have found it much easier to maintain the balance since I returned to work full-time, about three years ago, than it was when I first came back to work after maternity leave. I initially (rather optimistically) tried working part-time. It seems to work for some barristers, but it did not suit my practice at all.

There was one particularly memorable occasion when, on one of my non-working days, my instructing solicitor rang early in the morning to tell me that a document I was drafting (and which up until then had not been urgently required) needed to be ready by midday to show to the Secretary of State. Fortunately, my fabulous neighbour came to the rescue with an impromptu playdate for her daughter and my two sons (who rather enjoyed being catapulted over the fence still in their pyjamas).


What has been your scariest moment, in or out of court?

Objectively, I should probably say being robbed by bandits who, having crossed into Kenya from Somalia, shot at and hijacked the bus on which I was travelling. But I was considerably more scared by an incident that occurred later on the same trip. I was swimming in Lake Malawi and had been told that there were crocodiles in one of the bays on the other side of the small island. So when I glimpsed a dark shape beneath me I made for the shore at a pace that would have astounded my swimming teacher. Not quite the intrepid traveller after all, it seemed that I was actually afraid of my own shadow.

Happily, in court I have never had cause to fear that the judge, my opponent or my shadow were about to eat me for breakfast.


What’s on the horizon?

Hopefully very few rainclouds, as I seem to have persuaded my usually sensible husband of the merits of camping. As a result, we are about to spend several weeks discovering whether or not our new tent leaks.

On my return, I have a very interesting environmental case that I am doing pro bono with Joseph Barrett, our newest tenant at 11KBW, and Harrison Grant. The issue is whether the Duchy of Cornwall is a public authority for the purposes of the Environmental Information Regulations. So it brings together my twin passions of law and history, and raises all sorts of beguiling questions. The last time I had a case with a significant historical element, my family and friends learnt rather more about tramways than (I suspect) they cared to know. So I am sure they are all as excited about this one as I am ...

If anyone is intrigued to know whether the Duchy is a public authority, the answer (when we have it) will no doubt be posted on chambers’ information law blog and reported in the newly launched 11KBW/JUSTIS Information Law Reports.


Who or what inspired you to come to the Bar?

An easy question, at last: I think it would be hard not to be inspired by my father [Lord Steyn]. But then I am biased on that score, naturally.

Your question does lead onto an important point though. Most people, and certainly most pupils attending state schools (as I did), don’t have the advantage of knowing anyone in the profession. As a consequence, very often the Bar simply doesn’t feature as a career option. The benefit, as I see it, is not of the “leg up” variety: given the meritocratic nature of the Bar, that must – I hope – be rare these days. Rather, it is that meeting members of the Bar tends to dispel preconceptions. The problem, in my view, is not that the image is necessarily a negative one, but that it gives a very narrow view of the kind of person who can become a barrister, and so inhibits others who do not fit that mould from even thinking about coming to the Bar.

If more members of the Bar take on the role of encouraging and inspiring talented people from all social backgrounds, it could have a real impact in further opening up the Bar. The Bar Council scheme for getting barristers to go and give talks to pupils in state schools is a good one. Maybe rewarding speakers with CPD points might be a simple way to harness more support for it.


The final word: what is your favourite word?

Right now I would have to go with “ga-fluppted” (one of the numerous words coined by the wonderful Dr Seuss). It comes in handy if you wish to express a high degree of bafflement. I hope to see it in the law reports soon. ?

Karen Steyn was interviewed by
Matthew Lawson of LPA Legal
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