As I write, I recall the words of the district judge before whom I appeared early on in my career: ‘Miss Devans-Tamakloe, do you have any observations on my ruling? You don’t look like the type to keep quiet if you’ve got something to say.’ This was our first, and only, encounter but it was a very apt impression.

Having a voice and knowing when to use it is a skill I was born with. As a child, I was determined and deliberate – silent when I needed to be but unmissable when the time was right. Not everyone may have agreed with my assessment of when the time was right, but that’s a risk I’ve always been willing to take...

Participating in the Criminal Bar action

Fast forward to 2022, when the action started. It was during my second six and despite Criminal Bar Association meetings, chambers’ chats and heated debates in the robing rooms, the thought of not rocking up at court to defend my clients terrified me. The idea of being reported and sanctioned by the Bar Standards Board for choosing that option, terrified me even more.

Like so many others at the Criminal Bar, I was faced with a dilemma. But when I took a moment, and really thought about the ‘good and the bad’, the conclusion seemed clear: ‘Jennifer, you must participate and support the action.’

And so I did. I put on my uniform and stood outside Manchester Crown Court on Day 1 of the action, holding a placard.

We were successful in gaining attention from the media and public. We pricked the ears of the government – although it resisted and appeared unmoved for some time. We heard whispers of unsuitable alternatives being granted rights of audience to take our place should we fail to concede early, and the idea of ‘Diplock Courts’ again reared its ugly head as it did during COVID times. Those whispers did not scare us. We were strong, we were determined, and we were right.

Speaking on behalf of clients in court and addressing the press outside court felt like two very different types of advocacy. The former I embraced, and the other I had no taste for. I was nervous. Not in the way I felt before making submissions in court because I appreciated how important and impactful each utterance was for my clients, but in a way in which I felt exposed, and oddly vulnerable. My stomach was knotted. My mouth was dry. But I knew speaking out was worth it – for me, for those who were ahead of me and for those who might choose to follow.

One midsummer weekend, I attended a friend’s wedding on the Saturday and on the Sunday I was contacted by the BBC and Sky for early morning appearances on radio and TV the following day. These weren’t my first interviews during the action, but they were the most intense because, after months of campaigning, the ballot result for the next stage of action was imminent.

I was due to be in Wolverhampton Crown Court so, on Monday 22 August 2022, Sky News came to meet me outside the building.

The results were in. We had voted to escalate the action. I’d wept in the car on the way in, wiped my tears, reapplied my eyeliner and mascara, adjusted my face and marched to the front door of court. A very good and friendly reporter arrived and, after a little guidance from her, the camera started rolling. I had never felt so overwhelmed and, looking back, I think this was due to a combination of emotions, frustration and exhaustion from the fight.

The interview was swiftly over and then I got on with my job – the very job I’d for many years prayed for, and would do everything I could to protect.

Throughout the action, we in the North, particularly Manchester and Liverpool, had the unwavering support of the Bench which was invaluable. I was also very lucky to have to continued support of my chambers’ clerks. Without them, the action and this job would be impossible.

I don’t regret the action or my participation in it. I believe those who contributed are forever part of a rich and impressive history.

We did what was necessary for the preservation and survival of the independent Criminal Bar.

And if we must, we will go again.

Being Junior of the Northern Circuit

Under a year later, I ascended in my career to be a legal party planner with an enviable private guest list, and sole protector of the Circuit silver. I was sworn in as Junior of the Northern Circuit on 23 and 30 March 2023 at the Northern Circuit Grand Court Messes in Liverpool and Manchester respectively, with the responsibility of ensuring that members are elected to Circuit, arranging all mess events during term and generally representing the Northern Bar.

Previously, mess has had a reputation of being exclusive. However, certainly since I started pupillage and throughout my leadership, I believe mess is entirely inclusive and representative of the Bar. All are welcome and we ensure that all needs are catered for.

In my honourable role, I assisted my Circuit Leader Jaime Hamilton KC. Not only is Jaime a brilliant legal mind and formidable advocate but he is an excellent leader, and a real asset to the Northern Bar. He allowed me to control mess as I wished. There was only ever one request for mess, and that was to ensure Jaime knew if any High Court judges were to attend. Before me, there was this one time…

As Junior-elect, during my succession to the role, on the evening of 6 March 2023 in a dimmed private dining room in Manchester above a pub, I met and dined with seven of the Supreme Court justices including the President of the Supreme Court, Lord Reed. I took a breath to appreciate how far I had come. My journey to the Bar began aged 10 at school, debating my remaining in a plummeting hot air balloon such that all other guests perished. Now, as a criminal barrister sharing an evening with the most eminent legal minds in the country, I relished each moment of my progression.

Closing remarks

I am honoured not only to be a barrister at the Criminal Bar but to have represented my peers in the action, and to have been Junior of the Northern Circuit. I hope that I can be some encouragement to those wishing to practise as criminal barristers who don’t come from privileged backgrounds but have resilience, ambition and ability. My path was not an easy one, but it was worth every single scar.

Criminal practice is, in my view, fascinating. You are able to use your voice to help those who cannot help themselves, and in return you become part of their often life-changing story and can, at times, effect real change. There is sadness, there is belly-shaking laughter, and there is great human reward. It is a job like no other.

I say to all, if you want to achieve a goal and you truly believe it is for you, go for it. Don’t be dissuaded. Don’t be disheartened. Go forth and try again. I am here, precisely where I want to be, and there is more to come. 

Pictured above: Jennifer talks to the media during the 2022 Criminal Bar action. Jennifer also features in ‘Young Barristers at the Criminal Bar’, Episode Two of Kirsty Brimelow KC’s podcast, Criminal Justice Matters.