University: University of Oxford
The common law Bar remains an attractive option for those who believe that variety is the spice of life. Typically, common law chambers are multi-disciplinary and are divided into practice groups so that members can develop and maintain specialisations. Areas of practice can include actions against the police, employment disputes, discrimination law, landlord and tenant, personal injury, professional negligence, family law and criminal law.
Assisting the Grenfell Tower Inquiry; developing a clinical negligence practice simultaneously with a niche in criminal injuries compensation law; carrying out work for the government – it might sound like the record of a barrister of many years’ experience, but true to the nature of the common law Bar, Rajkiran Barhey has added all this and more to her CV at three years’ call. She discovered her passion for this most varied of areas as a student: “The modules I most enjoyed studying were tort and public law, so when I applied for pupillage, I targeted sets that work in these areas. I wouldn’t say that I knew much about clinical negligence before I became a barrister – the learning really starts once you are called to the Bar.”
Pupillage at 1 Crown Office Row was “a brilliant learning experience,” she enthuses. “Of course, it was tough at times – and, as a tenant, I am allowed to speak my mind now! – but as a whole, it was a unique and formative process. Over the course of 12 months, I sat with David Manknell, Matthew Barnes, Leanne Woods and Robert Wastell, all of whom have quite different practices. The first six months – creatively known as the ‘first six’ – were non-practising, meaning I spent my days accompanying my supervisor to court, conferences and settlement meetings – and drafting paperwork, such as pleadings, skeleton arguments and advices. In my second six I was allowed to practise, which meant that I started heading off to county courts in glamorous locations such as Horsham, Brentford and Wandsworth to do hearings in small claims but still continued to do work for my supervisors. By the end of the third ‘seat’ the tenancy decision was taken.”
The variety is exciting too – every case is so different.
The sheer variety of experience she gained during that year stood her in good stead to develop her own practice. “I particularly remember watching proceedings at the General Chiropractic Council in a case involving a chiropractor accused of making inflated claims about the ability of chiropractic treatment to cure a variety of ailments,” she recalls. “I also spent two days at the Court of Appeal watching my supervisor being led in an immigration case concerning the Calais camp clearances. I sat in on numerous negotiations and conferences in clinical negligence cases, ranging from an alleged missed diagnosis of cauda equina (a spinal condition), to a negligent angiography which led to the death of a young mother with four children, to a missed diagnosis of a pulmonary embolism. I also spent some time in the Coroner’s courts, most memorably in a case involving a young man known to mental health services who had taken his own life. One highlight was watching one silk from chambers against another before a High Court judge who was an ex-member in a case concerning an alleged failure by a sonographer to diagnose cardiac abnormalities in a foetus. I also headed along to the Tax Tribunal with another member and to a hearing in a public inquiry.”
Civil cases and public inquiries
Now a junior tenant, Rajkiran has a mixed practice with a strong focus on civil cases and medical law, predominantly clinical negligence: “The kinds of work you do at my stage include drafting pleadings such as particulars of claim and defences; attending cost and case management conferences – CCMCs – which are procedural hearings where you set the timetable for each stage of the case, such as when the expert reports need to be ready; and conferences with experts to go through the evidence and assess the case. Quantum work is another important aspect, so I’m also involved in drafting schedules and counter schedules.” Inquests are also a big part of her work at 1 Crown Office Row, acting for both families and other interested parties such as doctors.
In the early stages, it is common for barristers in this area of law to act as part of a wider team on high-value cases. Public inquiry work is one of 1 Crown Office Row’s specialities and for the past two years, Rajkiran has been part of the legal team examining evidence for the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire which killed 72 people on 14 June 2017. “I am currently one half of a team of two looking at the lifts in the building at the time of the fire, as this is one area of the inquiry,” she explains. “Initially, my role was to assist with examining all the documents that had been disclosed to the inquiry, after which I assisted in identifying potential witnesses, drafting questions and reviewing witness statements. Now the Inquiry’s expert is producing a report on the lifts in Grenfell Tower and I am involved in this process. The next step when the inquiry recommences is to help prepare for the questioning of witnesses.”
A mixture of public law and government work make up another portion of her practice. “One of the cases I am a junior on is a tax case concerning a VAT fraud investigation, which in the early stages involves looking through all the evidence and tracing transactions,” she explains. There are also large judicial review cases, where Rajkiran will assist with disclosure of evidence. Finally her practice is rounded out by a developing niche in criminal injury compensation authority work, with a particular focus on victims of sexual offences.
Variety and responsibility
Clients are split “completely 50-50” between claimants and defendants, which Rajkiran says is “one of the things I like most about my practice.” That balance is typical for barristers at her level of call. “There are some practitioners in chambers who specialise in claimant or defendant work, but it can take some years to decide if you want to specialise in that way,” she notes. “I find there are different challenges and skills involved in acting for each side, so I like to do both,” she adds.
When asked to pinpoint the key appeal of being a barrister, she points out that it is “a combination of things.” The first is “how intellectually challenging the Bar is – you would struggle to find another job in the legal field that is this demanding from day one. I also enjoy being self-employed and the independence that comes with that. It comes with responsibility as well, but I prefer having full control. The variety is exciting too – every case is so different.”
Covid-19 and court closures
Assessing the effects of the covid-19 pandemic, Rajkiran believes that she and her colleagues have adapted as well as possible. “I have had telephone hearings and conferences, as well as a Zoom roundtable meeting with the senior barrister, solicitor and client I am working on a case with, which also involved back and forth phone calls with the other side as we negotiated,” she explains. But while she and her set are coping reasonably well, the impact on vulnerable clients has been significant. “With the courts closed, many hearings cannot go ahead and there are cases which are not suitable to conduct over phone or video link,” she explains. “I’m currently working on an asylum claim which is on hold until the courts reopen because my client needs to give evidence about why he needs asylum in the UK, which he can’t do effectively on the phone.”
Turning to her advice for aspiring barristers, Rajkiran emphasises the importance of advocacy experience: “Take every opportunity that you can to get involved, whether it is taking part in formal mooting competitions – I participated in the Jessup Moot when I was at university – or joining your university debating society. It is not only beneficial to have on your CV; it also develops the skills you will need as a practising barrister.”
Finally, those intrigued by the variety and challenge of the common law Bar should make use of the many online resources available. “Use what barristers are writing and talking about to build up your knowledge base,” she urges. “For example, 1 Crown Office Row produces the Quarterly Medical Law Medical (QMLR), a podcast (LawPod UK) and the UK Human Rights Blog covering recent medical and public law developments. If you have a pupillage interview, these are the kinds of things you need to be able to talk about.”