The public trust lawyers a lot less than they do other professionals. (‘Lawyers’ in this context excludes judges, who rank very highly.) This is unfortunate. There will be many reasons for this, but I wonder if barristers (or chambers generally) undertaking greater amounts of outreach work could help address the issue. Interestingly, medical professionals rank highly when it comes to trust. Could this be because we see them at all stages of our lives – from the minor cold when we are young, to situations more serious as we age? A person may only stumble across a lawyer during the worst season of their life. There could be untold value in us going into schools and speaking to children about our work and the role we play in society.

Those finding themselves in the justice system – in whatever capacity – frequently have little faith in it. This is worrying, though it is not too hard to find legitimacy for this view. When you really think about it, court waiting rooms share similarities with train platforms served by Southern Rail in 2018. If asked back in 2018 whether you had faith in Southern Rail, your response likely would have been ‘no’. Trains were frequently delayed and sometimes never came. Applying this same logic to our justice system: when a person has arrived at court for their 10am hearing, but it in fact starts at… well, actually, it doesn’t start that day at all. You get the point.

People we hardly know, often friends of friends, are willing to share very private matters with us to obtain our legal perspective. Most barristers I know have experienced this. It speaks to a perceived insufficiency of accessible legal information. Surely a person’s preference would (where appropriate) be to find the answers in the privacy of their home. Because they don’t believe resources exist enabling them to do this, they ask us – in essence, strangers. This is far from ideal.

We, as barristers, should not forget that while we may be being praised for obtaining a ‘good result’, another individual, sitting in the same court, but with an opposing interest, is bemused at how a result so different to the one they anticipated has been reached. This can contribute to a layperson concluding that the system is unfair and lacks transparency. In a 2015 survey commissioned by Hodge Jones & Allen (Unjust Kingdom: UK Perceptions of the Legal and Justice System – Innovation in Law Report 2015), only a minority of the public believed the justice system to be ‘fair and transparent’. There is little to suggest that things are any better now in 2021. I have learnt the importance of being cognisant of this in order to connect better with my clients.

It surprises me how rarely clients will talk about how the law applies to their case, even at a most basic level. This, at least, is my experience. Of course, there should be no expectation that a client knows the law relating to their case in detail – that’s our job as their advocate; but it arguably points to many not seeing the law as something that is theirs to read, understand, know and learn to apply to their own circumstances.

Few other jobs provide a greater insight into the impact that government policy has on people. During my pupillage I did a fair amount of Magistrates’ Court work and created a template to assist my preparation for mitigation hearings. It included wording as follows: [insert any difficulties regarding the defendant’s mental health here], [insert any difficulties regarding the defendant’s difficult upbringing here], [insert any matters regarding the defendant’s difficult financial situation here]. Unbeknown to me at the time, this template highlighted the commonalities existing for so many of those appearing as defendants in our criminal justice system. It exposed the glaring root-cause issues that so often contribute to a person offending.

I remember posting a 60 second video on YouTube seeking to inform viewers of their rights if ‘stopped and searched’. Somebody on Twitter queried why the video failed to acknowledge the pressure and hardship that officers face when conducting a stop and search and instead only focused on informing individuals of their rights. Three years on, I am still perplexed. A police officer carrying out a lawful stop and search is, surely, only assisted if the recipient is fully aware of the law. Throughout the stop and search process (an inherently awkward interaction), if suspicion starts to arise in the mind of the recipient as to whether they are being dealt with correctly, they can allay that fear by affirming to themselves, moment by moment, that the officer is following the correct procedure. This benefits everybody. Seeking to address imbalances when it comes to knowledge of the law isn’t anything radical, or even special. It just makes sense.

The law has a bit of an image problem. Before I visit a doctor, I’ve nearly always Googled my symptoms and, after overcoming the initial hurdle of thinking I have four hours left to live, have developed a view of what the issue might be. It’s odd that clients don’t routinely do this before meeting their lawyer for a conference. Perhaps the law appears so complicated and time consuming that people don’t even attempt it. 

Whether arguing with a landlord, looking for a refund, going to a protest or being harassed, The Law in 60 Seconds: A Pocket Guide to Your Rights (Profile Books: 2021) aims to illuminate your rights and the power of the law, be it in a relationship, at home, out on the street, when you’ve spent money, owe it or are owed it. From housing to relationships, police conduct to travel, the book will help give you and your loved ones the confidence and clarity to take control.