The Birmingham Bar

All eyes on the engine of Britain: local chambers are expanding and national sets opening annexes in the city. Tariq Sadiq offers an insight into life and practice at the Birmingham Bar

Birmingham is a thriving, cosmopolitan city with a rich history. 

Known as the ‘engine’ of the country, Birmingham’s status as the UK’s second largest city has been bolstered recently by the Grand Central retail development (as part of the refurbished and modernised New Street Station) as well as the arrival of HS2 in the future. This puts Birmingham within an hour of London; and there are a number of further regeneration projects investing several £billion into the city. The region’s dominant manufacturing sector, with Jaguar Land Rover (and its second and third tier suppliers) at its core with one fifth of all UK exports to China, shows tremendous resilience and continues to succeed. In the financial sector, HSBC has followed Deutsche Bank into Birmingham by moving its retail bank headquarters from Canary Wharf to Arena Central, and the election of Andy Street, former managing director of John Lewis, as the new West Midlands Mayor has brought a renewed sense of optimism to the city.

The Bar: a proud history

The Birmingham Bar has a long history. There are sets of chambers tracing their histories back to the late 19th and early 20th century. More recent alumni include the previous Lord Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke; Jeremy Wright MP, the Attorney General; Lord Hughes, the Supreme Court Judge; Julia Macur in the Court of Appeal as the first female Senior Presiding Judge of England and Wales; Coleman Treacy and Andrew MacFarlane, also in the Court of Appeal; and there are currently four High Court judges from the Birmingham Bar: Keehan J and three who were appointed in 2014/15 (MacDonald J, Dove J and Davis J, the former Honorary Recorder of Birmingham).

The local picture

There are nine chambers in Birmingham, which can be described as organically created within the city. Until relatively recently most resided in Fountain Court, a building in the style of the Inns of Court, built in the early 1960s by a developer in conjunction with the Inns (and offering then and still, the inducement of a reduced market rent with 25-year reviews). Now, as a measure of confidence, sets have moved out further into the business and financial districts, and a number have large and corporate style offices akin to modern law firms.

Development of specialist work

The provincial Bar has always enjoyed strength in crime and family. However, the old notion that on taking Silk, in either of these disciplines, the practitioner would naturally gravitate towards sets in London would be considered highly unusual these days. The criminal Bar provides specialist trial advocates who practise at the highest level. Birmingham Crown Court, in particular, deals with a lot of complex work, the vast majority of which is carried out by advocates on Circuit. Another, perhaps better, reason for optimism is the return of criminal pupillages across the Circuit, an indication of a quiet confidence in the future of the criminal Bar. While funding pressures inevitably remain, these hopefully can be overcome.

In family work, the number of Silks steadily rises; and huge encouragement was taken from the successive appointments, and promotions, of Macur LJ, Keehan J and MacDonald J.

Twenty nine years ago, one of my colleagues as applicant for a tenancy in Chancery to one particular chambers, had the set described to him as ‘ridiculously expansionist’. It then had a total of 32 members. It was the start of the emergence of specialist work outside of London. Individuals such as Richard Tucker (Tucker J) had developed individual practices in personal injury; Harry Wolton QC in personal injury and planning, but more teams were forming in nearly all of the specialist disciplines. The city is now home to the two large multi-disciplined sets, St Philips Chambers and No5 Chambers. No5 Chambers now has well over 200 members; St Philips nearly 200. They both operate nationally with full presences in London, Leeds, Bristol and Leicester, offering a wide range of specialisms. They operate alongside Birmingham-based St Ives Chambers, Citadel Chambers, Cornwall Street, 43 Temple Row, Equity Chambers and Rowchester Chambers, each with individual and team strengths in the specialisms. An old joke that the multi-disclipinary sets of Birmingham could cover all work apart from wet and dry shipping ‘unless a canal boat collision counted’, falls flat with the recent merger between St Philips and Stone Chambers (trading as St Philips Stone), now with expertise now in shipping, international trade and arbitration, and with an office in Singapore.

Local planning barristers enjoy a tremendous national reputation which sees them involved in major planning inquiries and infrastructure projects across the UK.

At a recent talk to the Employment Lawyers Association in Birmingham, Simler J, President of the Employment Appeal Tribunal spoke of her desire to see the EAT sit in the regions, with Birmingham being an obvious candidate.

The courts

Civil work is serviced by the Birmingham Civil Justice Centre (BCJC), one of the largest High Court centres and the biggest County Court hearing centre outside London. Birmingham has always been a Chancery District Registry (with at least one full time judge for a very long time) and this is now strengthened with a fourth appointee in HHJ McCahill QC although the much respected, and popular, Judge Purle QC (former Chairman of the ChBA) will be retiring soon. The Mercantile Court has a refreshing new appointment in HHJ Worster, and the arrival of the Administrative Court was much heralded and has proved immensely successful. Sittings of the Court of Appeal in Birmingham have been trialled.

The future of specialist work is assured by the opening of the rebranded Birmingham Business and Property Courts, which were officially opened by the Lord Chief Justice on 7 July 2017 (see p 21). Reflecting Lord Justice Briggs’ Review of the Civil Court Structure that no case is ‘too large to be tried in the regions’, this should encourage more local firms to instruct local barristers in these areas.

Challenges

There are challenges faced by the local Bar. Client perception remains an issue, with some larger firms instructing London counsel (the local Bar would say they rely too much on the cachet) but as may be now appreciated, the Birmingham Bar has made significant inroads in breaking down such perceptions. Members of the Birmingham Bar also hold prestigious appointments on the Attorney General’s Panel of Junior Counsel to the Crown, the Attorney General’s Panel of Special Advocates, the Welsh Government Panel and the Equality and Human Rights Commission Panel of Counsel.

The quality of work emanating from Birmingham is now attracting other national sets to open annexes within the city, including Kings Chambers and 3PB.

Circuit community and training

Richard Atkins QC, the Leader of the Midlands Circuit and recently elected as Vice Chair of the Bar Council for 2018, has re-energised the tradition of Circuit messes and dinners with his avowed intent to have more fun on Circuit. Under his leadership, the Circuit education programme has thrived with a recent family seminar led by the two former Circuiteers, who are now High Court judges; and the Advocacy Training programme (with weekends away) is led by Andrew Smith QC and Shaun Smith QC with the magnanimously volunteered support of many Silks, juniors and judges.

Connections

The Birmingham Bar has strong connections with the Birmingham Law Society. Each year at the Birmingham Law Society Legal Awards the local legal community comes together at a prestigious event to showcase the best of the legal talent in the city. As proud recipient of the ‘Barrister of the Year’ award twice, I was pleased to see two members of the Birmingham Bar as contenders for the ‘Barrister of the Year’ award in the Lawyer Awards 2017.

Diversity and social mobility

Mirroring its demographic mix, the Birmingham Bar is taking the lead on diversity. The successful Bar Social Mobility Placement Scheme is very active in Birmingham, and it is run in partnership with Aim Higher West Midlands. Each year high achieving sixth form students from disadvantaged backgrounds are given a taster of life as a barrister, and students get to shadow a barrister for a week, experience advocacy training, careers talks and court visits. Hashi Mohammed from No5 Chambers appeared recently on a BBC Radio 4 programme on social mobility to discuss his achievements as a leading planning barrister after coming to the UK aged nine as an unaccompanied child refugee with little knowledge of the English language.

Body and soul

The quality of life in Birmingham presents considerable attractions; from the leafy suburbs to convenient city centre living within minutes of chambers, to attractive and easily accessible countryside.

The Birmingham Bar has its own choral ensemble, Advocaati, and benefits from local productions of legally themed plays, such as Learned Friends, by playwright and former criminal barrister Ginny Davis (and wife of Davis J). Individual chambers promote themselves to their target audiences through client-focused activities, often charitable, including sporting events – such as a boxing competition for the Ralph Lewis Memorial Cup, a Strictly 9 to 5 dancing competition (with representative trainers and judges from the TV show), cricket matches and a presence in the forthcoming 100 mile VeloBirmingham cycle races.

In summary, the Birmingham Bar thrives at the heart of the country, and it also has great body and soul. With some of the most talented and industrious practitioners in its ranks, it is well placed to meet the future challenges in our profession.

Contributor Tariq Sadiq is a barrister at St Philips Chambers

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Tariq Sadiq

Tariq practises at St Philips Chambers in commercial employment, public law and sports disputes.