Jacqueline Thomas QC

Jacqueline Thomas

 

Tell us about your background and why you decided to become a barrister.

I went to a normal comprehensive school in Chester, and I am the youngest of three siblings. Nobody at that stage had been to university in my family. My dad was a planning engineer, and in and out of work, and my mum was a housewife. I decided to become a barrister having previously considered hotel management, journalism and a solicitor. It was after-school work experience aged 14 in a solicitor’s office that I met HHJ Derek Halbert, who was then still at the Bar, whilst at court with a solicitor. He offered me a mini-pupillage, which I later took up and I was hooked on the Bar.
 

Did you face any obstacles along your journey to becoming a barrister and how did you overcome them? Have any of them persisted since becoming a barrister? 

The main obstacles were financial and a lack of connections with knowledge of the profession. I was lucky to be in the generation before tuition fees were introduced and I worked in various part time jobs to fund my way through my three years undergraduate course at Keele University. For the Bar Vocational Course, as it was then, I had no private finance available and took a professional loan of £15,000, in the hope that I would one day be able to repay it. It was a gamble. I had no idea what the Inns were, and nobody made me aware of scholarships or other assistance; it was assumed that you only went to the Bar if you had a legal family or could afford it privately. I had to research and find things out as I went along.
 

What opportunities, support and encouragement did you receive along your journey to becoming a barrister? 

Aside from my family who always supported me, my main support came from HHJ Halbert, who I was also lucky enough to marshal for during my Bar Course. My Bar Course tutors were also very supportive. Otherwise it was my own determination!
 

What is the most rewarding thing about being a barrister; has life at the Bar met your expectations?

The most rewarding thing has been to help people at the most stressful time of their lives, even if that is simply to support and explain the process, and ensure their voices are heard. As a family and Court of Protection barrister I’m rewarded when the system is successful in protecting the rights of vulnerable children and adults to ensure that they live the life that they would want to lead. I didn’t know what to expect as a barrister, and the workload in pupillage seemed insurmountable, but over the years it has surpassed my expectations.
 

How do you use your experience of coming to the Bar from an under-represented background to support those seeking to do the same, and/or why is it important for barristers to contribute in this way?

I am a member of the Bar Council’s Equality & Diversity and Social Mobility Committee (Retention Panel) and contribute to that regularly. I am also a regular attender at Circuit qualifying events for BPP students and make a point of speaking to attendees who may be in a similar position that I was, to encourage them. I recently met a young female Bar student from the North of England at one such event who I have stayed in touch with in the hope that I can continue to offer support and encouragement.

As a joint head of chambers, we recruit at least one pupil per year from the Legal Education Foundation (LEF), who focus their recruitment on underrepresented groups. This scheme means that the pupils know whether they have been successful before they embark on the expense of the BPTC. They are also supported financially by the LEF.

I have been part of the “speakers for schools” scheme over the years and in recent years have taken part in the advocacy training with the Bar Council for the Bar Placement Scheme, which my chambers is a part of.

It is vital that the Bar is seen as an accessible profession to all. One of the main skills that I was able to draw on in my early days was the ability to get on with clients regardless of their backgrounds and talk to them with an understanding of where they may have come from. We must be representative of those that we are seeking to speak for in court, if we are going to properly represent their views. I feel strongly that females from a Northern working-class background who can achieve a place at the Bar on merit alone should be fully encouraged.


What are the challenges facing today's aspiring barristers, and how could they be addressed?

The challenges remain financial and perception. I have been told on numerous occasions by students that they think they’d have to change their accent to come to the Bar, or that they don’t know enough judges to apply. Added to that are the horrendous levels of debt for university and the BTPC, with the uncertainty of whether they’ll find pupillage. In our chambers, we offer a pupillage the year before the applicant takes the course, which encourages applications from those without financial backing to apply in the knowledge that they would have a pupillage.

The current COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated the problem given the uncertainty around work levels and hearings. The government proposal of extended sitting hours would also deter those with caring responsibilities and family life, which is likely to be disproportionately women. In order to overcome these, the Bar and its leaders need to ensure that flexible working is actually flexible in practice and not just name.

In relation to the pandemic, if the profession is to continue to encourage underrepresented groups, chambers need to bear in mind that financial support will be crucial for the juniors going forward.
 

What advice would you give to someone from an under-represented background, seeking to succeed at the Bar?

To develop perseverance and resilience. To not be detracted by imposter syndrome or negative feedback from others. If you are determined to come to the Bar then your background will be to your advantage in practice and you need to see it as a unique selling point, not a disadvantage. You have experiences that others in chambers will not have that will enable you to relate better to your clients. Determination is key. On the practical side, there is help available, in the form of scholarships and the Legal Education Foundation. Don’t ever be ashamed or embarrassed to ask for financial assistance, it is a fact of life.