What is the Difference Between a Solicitor and a Barrister?

The first question that comes to the mind of many people when they need legal help is ‘Do I need a barrister or a solicitor?’

It is a fair question for anyone who has not had any experience of the UK’s complex legal system, and one that can’t just be answered by ‘Barristers wear wigs and solicitors don’t’ (solicitor advocates do in fact wear wigs).

Know your Lawyer
Starting with the basics, ‘lawyer’ is the blanket term for anyone who practises law, covering both barristers and solicitors.

The difference between the two professions, with some exceptions, is that barristers specialise in representing people in courts whereas solicitors mainly work in litigation, or the bringing of a case to court; working directly with a client.  

Solicitors and their role
When someone contacts a lawyer to handle a case it will usually be a solicitor. Solicitors tend to specialise in one area, for example property conveyance or divorce. Most of the time solicitors advise clients, undertake negotiations and draft legal documents. 

Working directly with the client, as well as advising on all legal requirements, a solicitor will deal with all the paperwork, including contact with other parties and preparing all the necessary paperwork for court.

In addition to this, the solicitor will facilitate negotiations between their client and the other parties involved in an attempt to reach an agreement, calculate any losses or compensation amounts, and gather further evidence. 

There are now some solicitor advocates who work in higher levels of the court system, and not just in Magistrates’ Courts (where less serious cases are dealt with) and County Courts, which has traditionally been the domain of a solicitor’s advocacy work.

Barristers and their role
As stated above, although certain solicitors can appear in court as advocates, in more serious cases or complex disputes, solicitors will often instruct barristers to appear in court on behalf of their clients. 

As such, barristers usually become involved once advocacy before a court is needed, with their role being to translate and structure their client's view of events into legal arguments and to make persuasive representations that obtain the best possible result for their client.

Barristers usually specialise in particular areas of law such as criminal law, chancery law (estates and trusts), commercial law, entertainment law, sports law and common law, which includes family law and divorce, housing and personal injury law.

They will advise clients on the strength of their case and provide them with a written ‘opinion’. They also draft other legal documents and advise their clients in conference. In court, they will present the case in front of a judge, examine and cross-examine witnesses, and give reasons why the court should support the case. They will also negotiate settlements with the other side.

Approximately 80% of barristers are self-employed, and generally work in offices known as barristers chambers that they may share with other barristers. Those who are employed in-house work in solicitors' firms advising clients directly, in agencies such as the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), or in specialist legal departments in industry, commerce, charities or central or local government, advising only the organisations they work for.

Barristers are kept independent and prevented from picking and choosing the cases they want to work on by what is known as the ‘cab-rank rule’. This rule means a barrister cannot refuse a case if, for example, they found the nature of the case objectionable or if they think the client has unacceptable conduct, opinions or beliefs. The rule derives its name from the tradition by which a Hackney cab driver at the head of a queue of taxis is supposed to take the first passenger requesting a ride.

Generally, self-employed barristers cannot be instructed directly by clients as they first need to be briefed by a solicitor. However, the exception to this is if the barrister is a member of the Public Access scheme (also known as Direct Access), which enables a member of the public to go directly to a barrister for legal advice or representation.

The main advantage of the Public Access scheme is that it could potentially save you money as you would be paying for a barrister only instead of a barrister and a solicitor. However, although the barrister would be able to deal with many aspects of the case, the client may have to assist in some areas, including filing documents with the court. 

Public Access is available for all types of work that barristers can do, except for work that is funded by legal aid. It is most suitable for reasonably straightforward cases. If you are not sure whether your case would be suitable for Public Access, you should contact Fenners for an initial discussion. If one of the barristers at Fenners considers that the case would benefit from the involvement of a solicitor, they will advise you.

The Public Access barristers at Fenners can advise at every stage and represent the client at all hearings up to and including to trial and appeal if required, offering a complete beginning-to-end service. 

If you have any questions about the type of legal services Fenners has to offer, please contact us on 01223 368761