During the first week of October, I was fortunate to join five other barristers from across England and Wales alongside members of the Bar Council’s Young Bar Committee in the first ‘Anglo-Dutch Exchange’ since before Covid.
As a criminal barrister practicing in Cardiff, I did not imagine that my career would take me overseas. I applied for the scheme thanks to a recommendation from Jonathan Rees KC – who has recently been involved in the first case to reach trial brought by the Kosovo Specialist Prosecutor’s Office in The Hague. Having heard his experience of the International Criminal Court, I decided that the exchange would be the perfect opportunity to gain a better understanding of the legal system.
I was not disappointed. In the short time I spent in The Hague, Amsterdam and Rotterdam, I spoke to Dutch counsel practicing in crime (and other areas). I was able to compare systems and learn from them as to how the jurisdiction functions both at District Court and appellate level.
A particular highlight of the trip was the visit to the District Court in Rotterdam. I had the opportunity to meet two members of the judiciary who sit in the Administrative/Maritime Courts. It is right to say that I did not expect to find this talk interesting. I was wrong. The discussion focused on the growing rates of criminal activity in the importation of drugs via shipping containers. Both judges discussed their view of the adequacy of sentencing powers and the relationship that this area of illegal maritime law has with criminal law.
What I did not expect to leave The Netherlands with were relationships with the other barristers I travelled with. Each of us were from different parts of the UK, in different areas of practice and with different life experiences. I am sure that each of us now has a good contact for trips across the UK.
I urge anyone interested in developing their practice to apply for the scheme. It is a great opportunity to broaden your legal knowledge and meet some fantastic people - both in formal work meetings and at drinks events organised by the Dutch Bar Association.
I arrived back in the UK with a working knowledge of how the legal system operates, a newfound interest in maritime law and a set of helpful Dutch contacts. I now hope to apply to join the International Criminal Court’s list of counsel which (if successful) will allow me to practice at the ICC. This experience has assisted me in gaining relevant experience, which otherwise would have been difficult to obtain, to make that application.
Martha Smith-Higgins is a barrister at Apex Chambers.