The point of Circuit

Why you should join a Circuit: a far cry from dinners eaten and fines levied, it’s good fellowship, lifelong education and representation in matters that affect you 

By Kate Brunner QC


‘The story of the legal life is to be told in dinners eaten.’ This quaint phrase comes from a popular 19th century legal magazine, The Green Bag, which was published in Boston, USA. The cover of each issue carried the proud boast: ‘A Useless, but Entertaining Magazine For Lawyers.’ In the Summer of 1900 one of its useless but entertaining writers journeyed across the Atlantic and spent time out on Circuit running along beside barristers and judges with his notepad. Lawrence Tannebay travelled back to New England and wrote an article to explain our Circuit customs to his American audience. He told them:

‘On circuits there is a system of fining. These fees are collected by “the junior” of the circuit, and are returned in a way to which objection may certainly be raised by the advocates of total abstinence. They go into the fund for which the wine treasurer is responsible, and which is expended on the purchase of wine to be consumed at the dinners. 

Fining usually takes place on Grand Night. The acts for which a man is liable to be fined are numerous. For example, if a counsel be appointed a recorder, he is usually fined two or three guineas, this being a serious offence. Getting married is a less serious offence. Upon the birth of a son a penalty is usually exacted. These fines are valuable for enforcing circuit etiquette, but they are much more valuable for increasing the stock of wine.’

On the Western Circuit we no longer have fines, but we do still have Grand Nights. These are three black-tie dinners annually. Our Circuit constitution requires that one is in Bristol, one in Winchester, and one unspecified: usually Exeter but this year in Plymouth. Members of Circuit know to expect mediocre food, fine wine and excellent company. It is the company which really makes the nights, with practitioners from all areas of practice and all seniorities, some joining Circuit that night fresh out of pupillage and some long retired. There are judges from the courts and tribunals, High Court judges, our presiding judges, and guests from the senior judiciary. It is said that good lawyers know the law, and great lawyers know the judge. It is certainly true that the close alliance between Bar and Bench at Grand Nights and less formal social and sporting events is a welcome and important part of Circuit life.

Alongside the social side of Circuit, there are two further important functions: education and representation. Our education programme is a little reduced since the CPD requirements changed, and online training became readily available, but we still train all our pupils here on Circuit so that they are not required to travel to London. Once they are up and running, we give them the required New Practitioner training here too. In that way, as in others, Circuit has a similar role to the Inns of Court in London, and most barristers out of London will identify with Circuit first and foremost. We provide other training to the longer in tooth – this year a course run by our training director Anna Vigars QC, a heavily subsidised day of specialist training with sessions on paperless working, voice coaching and questioning experts.

Representation, lastly. It is said that the Western Circuit represents barristers who practise in the South West, but what does that really mean? It’s hard to draw the boundaries of the Western Circuit. Geographically it covers a large triangle in the South West, including courts from Truro to Gloucester to Portsmouth. Any chambers in that zone would consider itself to be within the Western Circuit. That is not the boundary line, though, as there are many barristers in London who are also proud Circuiteers. They are often in chambers which have been associated with our Circuit since the assizes system of barristers and shouty gouty High Court judges travelling round parts of the country to try the most serious cases. There may be around 2,000 barristers who identify themselves as working largely in the Western Circuit arena. About half of them are paid-up members of the Western Circuit, paying their annual subsidy of £70 to help Circuit provide discounted services.

Each of the six Circuits organises itself in a slightly different way. On some Circuits, including ours, there is a paid administrator. Beyond that, Circuit is run by barrister volunteers. Each Circuit has a Leader, an unpaid role for three years (or two on other Circuits). On the Western Circuit, I am assisted by the Circuit Junior who runs the finances and generally deputises, and by the archaically titled Wine Treasurer who runs social events. There is also an invaluable Circuit Committee which meets three times a year, in which elected members have portfolios such as representing civil practitioners or running wellbeing initiatives.

The ways in which the Circuit represents barristers in the West includes: backing up individuals who have been treated unfairly, perhaps by the legal aid authority or another lawyer; pressing to ensure that our civil and commercial courts are properly resourced so that we can keep providing a service to rival London; providing advice and support on professional issues; liaising with the Crown Prosecution Service in our areas to help monitor fair allocation and advancement; and the Western Circuit Women’s Forum runs events and mentoring programmes to support and retain women barristers.

Alongside local concerns, the Circuit Leaders all represent their areas in national Bar politics – a vital role to ensure that the Bar is not run exclusively from London. I frequently discuss issues with other Circuit Leaders by telephone and email. David Elias QC, Lisa Roberts QC, Michael Duck QC, Mark Fenhalls QC, Richard Wright QC are a glorious band of brothers (although for the first time, with two sisters) who I now consider to be my friends. Although there are times when the interests of Circuits diverge and we take up arms for our own troops, we often find common ground. Where we can, we take it in turns to attend meetings in London such as the Bar Council’s General Management Committee or fees working groups. We liaise on national campaigns: the Western Circuit recently headed the Circuits’ campaign to increase court sitting days, with a local survey and report This Doesn’t Look Like Justice (bit.ly/2TzUaIy). We have enormously constructive and frank meetings with, among others, the Ministry of Justice, the Lord Chief Justice, the President of the Queen’s Bench Division, the Chief Executive of HM Courts and Tribunals Service and the Bar Standards Board. Those meetings in the capital are where the Circuits’ voices are heard and heeded, but they are not the most important element.

The article in The Green Bag concluded:

The Grand Night is a grand and most popular institution. The dinner is good, the wines are excellent and a stately decorum mingles with happiness and goodfellowship.’

That is the point of Circuit, that good fellowship, and long may it last.

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Kate Brunner QC

Kate Brunner QC is Leader of the Western Circuit. Kate is a barrister at Albion Chambers in Bristol, and the 36 Group in London, practising largely in crime and regulatory law. Kate is a Recorder (crime and family) and part-time judge of the Upper Tribunal (Administrative Appeals Chamber). Kate was a founder of the Western Circuit Women’s Forum.