Harry Folland completed the Bar Placement Scheme 2023. His blog was chosen as the winning entry in the North category. Here he shares his reflections on his week on the Scheme and how it challenged his ideas about what life at the Bar is really like.
Are barristers really isolated, scary and uptight?
I went into this week with a preconception that I already knew the inside workings of a barrister’s life: stuck at a desk, writing endless and vast amounts of legal documents, all whilst being isolated from everybody else. From the outside, these strangers seem dull and uptight, all while carrying out one of the most important roles in a functioning judicial system.
Before I knew it, the first day arrived and I found myself stood at the entrance of a seemingly normal apartment except for the gleaming list of high-flying barristers, both junior and KCs who to a regular passerby, means nothing. My mind filled with trepidation. The expectation of a scary, powerful barrister coming to meet me at the door overwhelmed me. What should I do?
Instead, I was greeted by the chambers manager, a seemingly friendly and welcoming person, turning my entire mind into an amalgamation of confusion and bewilderment. Still, I was yet to meet a barrister. My ingrained ideas of not only what a barrister is, but also the characteristics of a modern-day criminal, were still raging true.
Mental health: the most resonant theme of the trial I witnessed
My week started with witnessing the end of a trial of a defendant for a S18 offence (inflicting Grievous Bodily Harm with Intent). As the trial progressed, my prosecuting barrister offered compelling evidence for the defendant’s guilt: CCTV, custody photos, the victims witness statement, the weapon used - all undeniable evidence that should’ve sealed his fate as a caged-up prisoner for life.
It was the defence’s turn to offer their explanation for his seemingly inexplicable behaviour. Ever so intricately, the defence barrister started to tear apart the prosecution’s case, exploiting every loophole, trying to sow even the tiniest seed of doubt into the jury’s mind.
However, what really stuck with me was the mention of mental health. It was a repeating factor throughout my time with my chambers.
Firstly, during the trial, it was mentioned that the defendant was taking medication for depression, as well as other medications to control his frequent outbursts.
Secondly, I was at a sentencing hearing at the local magistrates' court where two young ladies were being sentenced for assault occasioning actual bodily harm. Once again, the prosecution offered strong evidence for both a high level of culpability and a high level of harm.
I took a glance over to the dock; the defendants' faces said it all.
The verdict of the court...
They knew it was over. Tears streaming down their faces, they were crestfallen. They had their entire lives to live, they had children who relied on them as sole carers but yet they now faced the real prospect of being sent to prison.
It was once again the turn of the defence who were desperate to keep these mothers out of prison. The issue of mental health was brought up once again. A long list of psychiatric illnesses were given as explanations for their irrational behaviour: ADHD, depression, anxiety, impulse disorder; the list went on.
Despite the equally long lists of aggravating factors, such as the presence of children, and the fact that it was a group attack, the magistrates ultimately determined that the circumstances surrounding the attack were simply not sufficient to warrant an immediate custodial sentence.
It amazes me how much control and power a judge or even a magistrate has. The life of any one person can be changed by the decisions of a select number of people.
...And my verdict on barristers, and on a career at the Bar
Throughout the entire experience, I’ve experienced the every-day lives of various barristers; even though on the outside they seem scary and isolated, on the inside they are comparable to every other profession on the planet: open, friendly, chatty, funny.
Every preconception that I had about the Bar was proved to be completely incorrect and showed that a career at the Bar really is right for me.