A brief guide to breaking down legal jargon.



The Government’s chief legal adviser, charged with providing independent, non-politically partisan legal advice to the government. Note – the provision of independent, non-politically partisan legal advice can be hazardous to one’s job – see Dominic Grieve Q.C.. As of February 2020, the Attorney General is Suella Braverman.

The Attorney-General is also responsible for overseeing prosecutions – her consent is required to institute certain types of criminal proceedings, and she has the power to refer setences believed to be “unduly lenient” to the Court of Appeal for reconsideration (known as Attorney-General’s References).



Member of the Bar of England and Wales. Provider of specialist and expert legal advice and advocacy. Has full “rights of audience” – i.e. is permitted to appear in any court in the land, from magistrates’ courts through to the Supreme Court. The Bar is traditionally a referral profession – that is to say that in order to instruct a barrister, members of the public would have to go through a solicitor. The common analogy is that of a GP (solicitor) and a surgeon (barrister), which is accurate if the GP routinely misdiagnoses the patient, refers to the surgeon to fix the error/stem the bleeding and then holds on to the surgeon’s fee for three years.

Barristers tend to specialise in a particular area of law, which is often dictated by how strongly they desire to pay off the £100,000 debt accrued in training. There’s treasure to be mined in the fields of privately-funded commercial, shipping and chancery (impenetrable trusts and property) law. Perennial penury lies the way of anything marked “legal aid”.

Most barristers are self-employed and operate out of Chambers. Others are employed by solicitors’ firms, governmental agencies or private business.



Colloquialism for a barrister’s papers in a particular case. Traditionally bound in ribbon, more frequently bound in elastic bands, treasury tags or held together by improvised origami. Nowadays, mostly digital. Not to be confused with “brief” when used by criminal clients, referring to a legal representative.


Cab Rank Rule

The fundamental principle that a barrister, like a cabbie, has to take the first “fare” that arrives. The obvious rationale being to ensure that no-one simply cherrypicks the plum cases (to mangle a fruit metaphor), and to maintain the cherished independence of the bar. In practice, the rule has been watered down since its inception. Publicly-funded work has been excluded from this rule, due to the widely-acknowledged paucity of legal aid rates.



Grandiose terminology for premises out of which self-employed barristers operate. Ranging in size from half a dozen to several hundred barristers, a chambers allows members to split overheads such as rent, staff and administrative expenses. Like a commune, only without the class A stimulants and promiscuous rutting.

Not to be confused with a Judge’s chambers – His or Her Honour’s private room in a court building.


Circuit Judge

A Judge sitting in the Crown Court, adorned in purple and red robes.



Pimps behind desks. Clerks get the work in to chambers, schmoozing solicitors and prostituting barristers to ensure that everyone’s diaries remain full and cases are covered. Although solicitors will often request specific barristers, when there is a diary clash the clerks reallocate and redistribute the work. They have complete discretion. The clerk’s thumb quivers, Caesar-like, over the wellbeing of your practice.

So although clerks are employed and salaried by the barristers, the dynamic betrays the reality. If your clerk says “jump”, you prepare to bungee for a week in South Wales for free. As clerks work on commission, every working day has to be filled. Some clerks are rumoured to keep black books containing records of holidays taken by each barrister, with the most “to heel” members rewarded with better work. After a few years, Pavlovian conditioning kicks in and you simply stop requesting holiday. It’s akin to declaring yourself self-employed and then hiring somebody to tell you you’re never allowed time off. Independence in its loosest, Bizarro sense.


Cracked trial

A case in which a defendant pleads not guilty, a trial date is set, and the defendant subsequently pleads guilty prior to trial.


Criminal Barrister

A hired gun, fighting for justice in a black cape. Basically Batman.

As the adage has it, crime doesn’t pay, but it’s a damn sight more interesting than poring over the finer points of trusts law. Most criminal barristers both prosecute (instructed by the CPS) and defend (instructed by defence solicitors’ firms), although there are some chambers who will only defend, and others who solely prosecute. My two penn’orth is that doing a mix probably makes you better at both.

Prosecuting for the CPS is paid for on fixed rates. Defending is generally funded by Legal Aid, also almost always paid on a fixed fee scheme.


Criminal Bar Association (CBA)

The representative body for criminal barristers. The closest thing we criminal hacks have to a trades union.


Crown Prosecution Service (CPS)

The Crown Prosecution Service. Born in 1984 out of a noble desire to centralise, streamline and inject consistency into the prosecutorial process. Responsible for the majority of prosecutions in the criminal courts. Desperately underfunded and understaffed following years of budget cuts.


Crown Court

The first instance court for all criminal matters too serious for the magistrates‘ court. The traditional stomping ground of the criminal barrister.


Director of Public Prosecutions

The head of the CPS. Currently Max Hill QC.


District Judge

Legally qualified judge – usually a former solicitor or barrister – who sits in the magistrates’ court. Has the same powers as magistrates, but is able to exercise them in a fraction of the time.



Not to be equated with income. Fees represent a barrister’s turnover. Or, more accurately, aspirational turnover, given the mathematical principle: Fees billed > Fees received. As a rule of thumb, I retain around 35% of my gross income. The rest finds its way into the pockets of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, my clerks and train company shareholders.


The General Council of the Bar (Bar Council)

The General Council of the Bar, founded in 1894, is the Approved Regulator of the Bar of England and Wales. It represents the interests of barristers across the profession, a sort of overarching trades union. The Bar Standards Board is the independent body through which the Bar Council regulates barristers, setting educational and training requirements, monitoring the code of conduct for barristers and handling complaints and disciplinary matters.


Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs

Responsible for collecting tax on fees billed (i.e. charged) but not necessarily paid. Operates in a well-drilled pincer movement with the Legal Aid Agency (LAA). Flow chart is: BARRISTER DOES WORK – BARRISTER BILLS £X – GOVERNMENT THROUGH LAA FINDS REASON NOT TO PAY £X – GOVERNMENT THROUGH HMRC INSISTS BARRISTER PAY TAX ON £X NOT RECEIVED – BARRISTER SELLS SHOES/HOUSE/CHILDREN.


Holiday pay

Something that happens to other people.


Inns of Court

All barristers are members of one of the four Inns of Court – Gray’s Inn, Inner Temple, Lincoln’s Inn and Middle Temple. The Inns provide professional support – libraries, education, accommodation and, most importantly, subsidised dining.


Legal Aid

Public funding provided for criminal defence, although the qualifying criteria are stricter and stricter. There is not, contrary to popular belief, an hourly rate. The fee for most cases is fixed by the government, far below market rates, meaning that it is not uncommon to spend a full working day in court on an hourly rate below minimum wage.


Legal Aid Agency

The limb of the Ministry of Justice responsible for paying defence solicitors and barristers. Extracting fees is like negotiating with an insurance company. Under terms of engagement, barristers and solicitors are prohibited from suing the LAA for money owed.


Lord Chancellor/Secretary of State for Justice

The senior government minister responsible for, inter alia, courts, prisons and legal aid. Currently Robert Buckland QC. The Lord Chancellor was historically (pre-2005) the representative of the judiciary in Cabinet, before its function was tweaked and politically-fused with the newly-created Secretary of State for Justice. The overriding constitutional duty of the Lord Chancellor is to defend the rule of law and ensure that government makes sufficient resources available for the efficient running of the justice system.


Magistrates’ Court

The lower court in the criminal justice system. Tries and sentences less serious offences, as well as holding “first appearances” for more serious cases which are thereafter sent to the Crown Court.

Magistrates – non-legally qualified volunteers with the power to imprison for up to 12 months – have a legally qualified “legal advisor” to direct them on the relevant law. The magistracy is often criticised for being unrepresentative – white, middle-class and middle-aged being the popular trinity. Of perhaps greater concern is the Wild West approach to justice adopted by too many mags’ courts.



Something that happens to other people.


Pupillage / Tenancy

The 12-month on-the-job training that follows the university Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC). The first six months (“first six”) are spent shadowing one’s pupil supervisor in court, performing written work, making tea etc. The second six months are spent “on your feet”, doing cases in your own right. At the end of pupillage, the chambers will vote on whether to offer a pupil a tenancy, or whether to cast them onto the streets. If a barrister doesn’t secure tenancy, s/he cannot practise as a self-employed practitioner.


Queen’s Counsel (QC)

Queen’s Counsel. Honour bestowed upon senior barristers. Referred to as “taking silk”, on account of the splendid silk robes.



Due to the vagaries of barrister’s diaries and unavoidable overrunning of trials, the instructed barrister is often unavailable to appear in a case. In these circumstances, the brief is “returned” by the clerks to an alternative available barrister.



Legally-qualified practitioner responsible for the conduct of litigation in legal proceedings. Solicitors would say that this translates as handling the unglamorous paperwork and client care, while the barrister takes all the credit in court. This is in a lot of cases true.

In the criminal law context, solicitors are the first port of call for a defendant, often representing after arrest at the police station. Solicitors do not have full rights of audience – i.e. they are only permitted to appear in the “inferior courts” – magistrates’ courts and county courts. Therefore for criminal cases in a Crown Court, solicitors will usually instruct a barrister to act for a defendant (although see Solicitor Advocates). The common analogy is that of a GP (solicitor) and a surgeon (barrister), which is accurate if the GP diagnoses the problem, tells the surgeon exactly what needs doing and sits in silence as the surgeon tells the patient how he has saved him.

Most solicitors are employed by firms, of varying sizes and reputation.



Solicitors who have qualified to exercise “higher rights” of audience – i.e. to appear in the Crown Court and above. In practice, it allows solicitors’ firms to keep advocacy in-house, avoiding the need to instruct a barrister.



Very High Costs Case. Particularly complex criminal case paid on an hourly rate, rather than a fixed fee. Don’t let this moniker deceive, however – the number of hours claimable is capped, and the actual hourly rate can be quite poorly paid. VHCC rates were cut by around 30% in 2014.

4 Replies

  1. This has proven a helpful glossary for the writer in me. I always wondered what the difference was between Barrister and Solicitor were. Do you have the term Attorney as well? If so, where does it fit?

  2. I applaud your sarcasm on the break down of legal jargon. Clerks, in particular, caught my attention, as I reminisce on the time I had spent in chambers in the 1980s and 1990s as a clerk.

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