University: Imperial College London
Degree: Chemical engineering
The public law Bar spans the full range of administrative, public and constitutional law. Specific areas within the field include civil liberties and human rights, commercial judicial review, community and healthcare law, disciplinary proceedings and the internal administration of public bodies, education law, housing law, planning law, prison law, and social services and social security law. Public law work has a European influence, with a steady stream of cases being referred to the European Court of Justice for preliminary rulings and other cases raising the issue of the application of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Hugh Southey QC’s career in public law started as a criminal solicitor. “Attending police stations, I met many clients with immigration problems and it was clear that there were very few people providing the representation they needed,” he says. “I happened to be working at a law firm at which there was a colleague with significant experience in immigration cases, so I was able to begin learning about immigration law, which was not taught at law school.”
Having at first not considered the Bar realistic (“I thought it was a career for posh boys – both parts of the description used advisedly”), Hugh requalified as a barrister after reaching “a point that many solicitors arrive at, where you either become more of a manager – because as you increase in seniority, you run larger and larger teams – or you do something else. The first option means gaining a range of important skills as a manager but reducing the time you spend specialising in law.” With his passion for legal analysis, argument and access to justice, the choice was clear.
Another influence was the increasing sense of frustration “at having to hand cases over at the trial stage. In public law, many cases come to a head in court and this is where a lot of the satisfaction of the job lies.”
Win or lose
He completed pupillage at leading civil liberties set Tooks (the former Chambers of Michael Mansfield QC that collapsed in 2013), where he practised for 17 years. Later he joined Matrix Chambers, established in 2000 by leading human rights barristers including Cherie Booth QC. Now a silk himself and a Deputy High Court Judge, Hugh’s practice has expanded from its original immigration focus to cover various other areas of public law, often with a human rights element, such as prison law, healthcare and judicial review in criminal matters. He still does a significant amount of immigration work with a focus on cases where people are accused of terrorism activity.
Hugh has also been called to the Bar in Northern Ireland, where his work has centred on issues such as the right to life, and investigations into human rights violations during the Troubles. Working with prisoners is another important part of his practice, for example, he is currently leading the legal challenge against controversial legislation to delay the release of prisoners convicted of terror offences.
Much of the action in these types of cases happens in court – and proceedings have continued as much as possible during the UK’s coronavirus lockdown. “Public law does not tend to settle – it is win or lose,” explains Hugh. “Before covid-19, I was in court two to three days a week on average, with preparation taking up the rest of my time. More recently, remote hearings have been frequent. I think the courts have worked better during the lockdown than many people had feared. Trying to focus on a laptop is never going to be the same as being physically in court, where you can see everything around you, so it is slightly more limiting in that respect as well as more tiring, but in cases where evidence is not being called, remote hearings can work well.”
“Wow, I’ve made it”
Leading cases at the highest level before the Supreme Court, European Court of Justice and European Court of Human Rights means that Hugh is not short of career highlights to discuss, but if he had to choose just one? “Two minutes into making my first set of submissions in the Supreme Court – in a moment of clarity I remember thinking ‘wow, I’ve made it’. It was a case about the rights of people with a conviction that I had taken from an initial advice up to the highest court. One of the great attractions of being a barrister is that there are many moments throughout your career in which you have a real sense of achievement. You do, however, also need to remind yourself that that this is about the person you represent. It is a privilege to be asked by anyone to represent them.”
One of the great attractions of being a barrister is that there are many moments throughout your career in which you have a real sense of achievement.
Pursuing a career as a specialist advocate has not entirely avoided the pull of management. Hugh is a former chair of Matrix’s management committee – the equivalent of head of chambers – although he points out that his management responsibilities as a solicitor were “far more demanding.” This is because Matrix has always invested in “a high-quality management structure, so the barrister management is really about setting the strategic direction of the business and ensuring democratic accountability, with day-to-day management handled by professional managers. I enjoyed my time as chair of the management committee – I had an overview of how the whole organisation works and helped to influence the agenda, but because of our investment in professional management, the role was not as time consuming as it might be at a different chambers.”
The solicitor-to-barrister route
Looking at the barristers’ profession in the economic wake of covid-19, he points to “the backlog of cases” in the criminal justice system which reinforces “the need for investment in the criminal Bar.” However, Hugh remains cautious about making predictions given “the obvious fact that there is going to be a lot of uncertainty and no one can reliably say what is going to happen.” But he does think that the uncertainty of the times makes his route into the Bar via the solicitors’ profession an even more viable prospect for today’s aspiring advocates: “For some time, I have thought that more people will begin taking the route I have taken of being a solicitor first and then becoming a barrister. If there is a downturn in work for a period following covid-19, as seems likely, the work that remains will be with clients who prefer to instruct barristers with greater expertise – there may be less work for those at the very junior end. Working as a solicitor gives you an opportunity to build up that expertise, so that when you come to the Bar, you offer added value. The Bar has become incredibly competitive – although it sounds clichéd, I’m not sure that I would have made it in the current environment. Despite all that I hope that people, particularly those from non-traditional backgrounds, stick at it and become barristers, because ultimately it is a great job.”