This is the second and final part of a series following the COVID-19 pupillage of pupil barrister Karen Staunton. Karen has moved on from the supervision of Chris Bryden, spending time firstly with Katherine Illsley and now with Justyn Turner, but Chris returns to give his insights from a supervisor’s perspective.


Karen Staunton (KS): The most exciting and terrifying part of pupillage is undoubtedly getting on your feet. However, during a pandemic, with many hearings going ahead online, going into my second six, it was unclear when I would actually physically get on my feet in a courtroom.

My chambers is a mixed common law set, with pupils taking on a range of criminal and civil cases. As it turned out, my first case was in person for a first appearance at a Magistrates’ Court, and so was not too different to a ‘normal’ pupillage. Like any pupil in or out of lockdown, I duly prepared as thoroughly as humanly possible and arrived at court two hours early. I then had an adrenalin-fuelled experience of trying to track down my client and the probation team, the former being uncontactable and the latter working remotely. I finally discovered that my client had been remanded in custody for a different offence, and, as no video-link had been set up between the court and the prison, the first appearance was adjourned. While this may sound like an anti-climactic beginning on my feet, I loved every minute of it – after I had done it, that is!

Chris Bryden (CB): As noted in the first part of this article, I was initially concerned that Karen would not get to see enough in-person court work, as it was clear to me that she was likely to be attending at least some cases in person from an early stage, particularly criminal cases. However, Karen was able in her first six to observe a number of in-person cases and obtain a familiarity with the physical court system and what running a case entails. That her first case was in-person was a source of much excitement amongst members of chambers, both those physically in the building and those participating virtually through WhatsApp groups. There were dozens of messages wishing her good luck (albeit many of these in a chambers group of which she was not a member – but were passed on to her!) and the most junior tenants made sure that they were available to her to support her if she required it. We all still remember the buzz of our very first case, and it is always great to see someone else have that experience.

KS: By and large, my cases since then have followed a similar pattern in that hearings are mostly going ahead, either in person or remotely, albeit with the occasional technical difficulty in ensuring all the parties are present and can participate. As it seems likely that at least some types of hearings, such as case management hearings, will continue remotely going forward, I think this hybrid approach to pupillage has helped me to develop my skills as both an in-person and online advocate.

I also feel particularly lucky to have started on my feet 12 months after the first lockdown because this has allowed the courts to adapt to having hearings during a pandemic. There has therefore been a large volume of work for me as a pupil because of the huge backlog of cases, compared to last year, because the first lockdown caused the vast majority of hearings to be effectively delayed.

CB: It is a near-certainty that some aspects of court work will remain virtual; the Ministry of Justice and HM Courts and Tribunals Service have no doubt realised that costs can be saved and buildings can be allowed to become ever-more dilapidated if fewer people are there to use them. I remain undecided on the merits of virtual hearings. I can see the sense in many administrative matters being dealt with remotely (though I have concerns over the pressure on the overworked judiciary, particularly at district judge level, of having to deal with endless hearings one after another by telephone, CVP, Zoom, Teams etc) but there are very real issues over accessibility, and trials remain, in my view, wholly unsuited to virtual hearings. It is therefore likely that Karen, who will continue to have a very mixed common law practice for the rest of her pupillage and the first few years of tenancy, will have a mix of in-person and virtual hearings. In that respect, these strange times may have been the ideal learning experience for her, as it is, to her, ‘normal’; the rest of us are still adapting and catching up with this hybrid way of working.

KS: In terms of the social side of pupillage, my second six has been taking place at the same time as the UK has been reopening. At my chambers, more members are now coming into chambers from time to time, and the clerks are also coming in on a rotating basis. Slowly but surely, I am therefore meeting more members of chambers in person, as well as starting to get to know the clerks, who until recently have been semi-mythical figures, disembodied voices on the phone. On occasion, however, there has been an added challenge of then recognising members of chambers that I had already met after their post-lockdown haircuts. Hopefully, they have not had the same problems recognising me.

Luckily, I always felt that I was able to telephone other members of chambers or the clerks if I had a problem or concern, but it feels much more organic to be able to run potential legal arguments past members of chambers in person rather than discussing these over the phone. This is particularly so when I want to celebrate or commiserate after a particular case – it feels far harder to justify interrupting someone’s day with a telephone call to rant about a case, rather than doing so when you bump into someone at chambers.

CB: Chambers has slowly been coming back to life. Some of us have been in frequently over the course of the pandemic, for various reasons arising from not being able practically to do our work at home. Others have been in fleetingly; yet others had not been physically seen since the very start of Lockdown 1. As the country unlocks, and as more hearings are listed in person, more and more members have been returning. It has been fantastic to see, in the flesh, colleagues that I have only seen via a screen and spoken to by phone or message for far too long. The obvious benefit of more people being around is that the social side of chambers has gradually returned, albeit in a more limited and socially distanced way. For Karen, it has been useful for her to get to know more of the people who will shortly be voting on her tenancy, as well as to participate in social gatherings and listen to the gossip and war stories that have always been an integral part of life at the Bar. It has also been good for her to develop the confidence to approach members in person to discuss her cases; and to celebrate or commiserate, as she says! It is, however, fair to say that many members of chambers do not feel the same reticence in phoning to rant about their cases…

KS: The difference in a ‘lockdown second six’, particularly in civil cases, is that I have met far fewer clients and solicitors in person. I have also been informed that I have missed out on some good snacks given the move away from in-person conferences. [CB: not in our chambers!] In criminal cases, security staff at the courts have told me that it takes them longer to recognise new barristers now because everyone wears masks, and so this makes you feel new for longer. Similarly, the slightly different social distancing measures in different courtrooms can make it feel like you don’t know where to sit in court, or how close to approach your opponent for pre-hearing discussions, and that can prolong the feeling of being new. However, all barristers are having to adapt to these changing measures. Rather than exposing me as being newly on my feet, the social distancing measures may instead help me to blend in.

CB: Looking back, I am extremely proud as to how Karen has handled what, by any definition, has been an odd time to start her career.

KS: Overall, I think a lockdown second six has prepared me well for the way in which advocacy will take place in a post-COVID world. It has been a strange start to my career, but I can’t wait to see what happens next over the years and decades I hope to be in practice.