Legal systems around the world can be confusing enough when considering all the terms used, like lawyer, attorney, barrister, solicitor. But before you don your wig and gown, who gets to do what in a British courtroom? What job has what duties? How does a barrister compare to a solicitor, and how does that apply to you and your case? How can each one help you?
Is a barrister higher than a solicitor?
A barrister functions at a higher rank in the legal system than a solicitor. A barrister pleads a case to a higher court in most British countries or countries formerly under British rule, while a solicitor completes all the administrative work for the barrister, working as the middleman between barrister and client. Depending on the case or their experience, a solicitor may address the court.
The most important distinction to note before even explaining either profession is that these two jobs—barrister and solicitor—are not used in the United States. Both terms, however, function in the courtroom and in common law jurisdictions, most typically in British or former British colonies.
But what does each profession actually do, and how do they function within the legal system? Read on to find out more.
What is a Barrister?
A barrister specializes in both litigation and courtroom advocacy. They represent their litigant before a court, speaking to them and presenting their case like a traditional lawyer.
Typical jobs for a barrister include drafting pleadings, researching law, and giving their expert opinions on cases. Much like the position of lawyer in the United States, barristers have their own specialization, like family court or criminal court, or in some cases, may serve over several different areas of law.
Barristers are more likely to be appointed by judges and are not typically hired by their clients. Most of the time, they do not have direct contact with their clients at all and instead work through a solicitor.
A barrister has what is called the “rights of audience” in a higher court. In the United Kingdom, the lower courts include Family Court, County Court, and Magistrates’ Court. The Crown Court sits above the Magistrates’ Court, which can both answer to the High Court of Justice or go directly to the Court of Appeal. These answer to the High Court of Justice, which then answers to the Court of Appeal, which then answers to the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. Barristers have the right to appear in the High Court and above.
While you may see lawyers working together in a firm in the United States, in most countries that use the ‘barrister’ profession, they are prohibited from working as a part of a corporation or forming a partnership at all.
What you will see instead is barristers forming together as “chambers,” where they can share administrators and any operating expenses. Barristers are also typically self employed and can charge higher fees.
In the United Kingdom, a barrister is the one in the courtroom wearing a wig, collar, and gown. These outfits, known as court dress, are still worn in most courtrooms, excluding any hearings in chambers or in the Magistrates’ Courts. They are typically not used in Family Court, and depending on the opinion of the judge, may not be required.
In some British dependencies, the term is also used as an honorific title.
What is a Solicitor?
A solicitor is considered a legal practitioner in most jurisdictions and must receive a practicing certificate. Solicitors must hold a qualifying law degree or must complete a conversion course, which gives them the education they need before enrolling in the Legal Practice Course. After completion, they must serve as an apprentice for two years with a firm.
A solicitor meets with their clients, does the prep work for cases and provides legal advice as needed. They also review any legal documents and do all the administration and day to day work within a case.
This also means that a solicitor tends to be the middleman between the clients and the barrister, working through any paperwork and providing any information needed to the barrister during a case.
A solicitor is more frequently employed by a law firm or organization to serve in-house and are considered an employee.
Solicitors handle most civil cases in county courts.
In England, there are significantly more solicitors than barristers.
In the United Kingdom, solicitors wear a different style gown than the barristers and are now entitled to wear wigs as well.
Barristers and Solicitors in the United States
As mentioned before neither of the terms are used in the U.S.; all lawyers who have passed the bar examination can either defend or prosecute in whichever state they are admitted to the bar.
Historically, the use of the terms ‘barrister’ and ‘solicitor’ existed in the United States, but the jobs fused by the late 19th century, becoming the blanket term ‘attorney.’
In the past, though, certain states did call barristers “counselors” and sometimes that terminology still exists today, but more often than not they are just called an attorney.
What are the main differences between Barrister and Solicitor?
The biggest difference is how they work with clients. As mentioned before, a barrister defends the client in court while the solicitor handles all the legal work outside of court, working together in the case to defend or prosecute for their client.
A barrister has the rights of audience within the higher courts, while a position like solicitor has limited access or must receive the qualifications in order to gain access.
Solicitors have more direct access to their clients; although this has been changed in UK law in the 1990s through the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990, the traditional breakdown between the two still remains. Solicitors have the rights of audience now in certain circumstances, allowing them to work in the higher courts. Solicitors must pass a test before being permitted into the higher courts.
When comparing the two, the main difference is that a barrister must pass the bar while a solicitor must receive a practicing certificate.
A solicitor is usually an employee of a larger company, while a barrister is self-employed.
Most civil cases are simply handled by solicitors rather than barristers. The higher the value of the case, the more likely they will be tried in High Court with a barrister at the helm.
A solicitor and a barrister can and typically work together on a case. A solicitor supports the barrister by managing documents or reaching a settlement outside of the courtroom while the barrister continues the trial.
When a country has a distinction between the two, like the UK, the job is split into a barrister and solicitor. While not the same across the world, in England and Wales it is possible to be both a barrister and solicitor at the same time.
What is the difference between a public servant and a civil servant?
Which is higher: barrister or solicitor?
Based specifically on where they function in the legal system, a barrister is considered a higher position than a solicitor. Because they are appearing in front of the higher courts and pleading a client’s case to a judge, while a solicitor gathers that information, they have more legal responsibilities and outrank a solicitor.
Because becoming a barrister requires additional schooling, they can also be considered a higher rank than a solicitor; still, in terms of both usefulness and need in the legal system, neither is better than the other. A barrister pleads a case while a solicitor builds the case, and both are necessary for the development of a civil or criminal case being tried in the United Kingdom or other former British colonies.
Why is it split?
In the United States, both jobs fall under a typical attorney or lawyer’s office. So why split the responsibilities into two positions? There are several advantages and disadvantages to the distinction.
Leaving the barrister to receive the case information from the solicitor, who has gathered all the case information, gives the barrister a fresh look at the case. They are more independent from their clients, meaning they are removed from the personal relationships that a solicitor may have.
Because many judges appointed were formerly barristers, not having that direct client relationship means they are removed from having personal preference for clients, and therefore are more able to judge cases with an objective approach.
In most jurisdictions, barristers are required to accept a case if they are available and it is within their area of expertise, which means all cases are represented, regardless of personal opinion.
A disadvantage to the split, though, is saturation of the field. Because there are so many people serving in these positions, the judicial system tends to be less efficient.
The barrister’s removal from the client is another disadvantage—they are less knowledgeable about their client’s needs, and therefore may have trouble supporting them while in court.
The Future for Barristers and Solicitors
While either distinction is very traditional, especially in British or formerly British-ruled countries, the division is starting to break down.
Barristers used to have the ability to appear in the higher courts when others did not, but this has since been abolished in Great Britain. Solicitors are now permitted to appear at trial for their clients.
With the distinction between the two defined and the differences outlined, barristers function at a higher level in the legal system of the United Kingdom and other British-influenced countries around the world. That being said, as the legal system gets more modernized, we may still see that change in our lifetime—it could still shift to one position like it has in the United States. Regardless of whether you are considering becoming a barrister or solicitor, need to ask for legal advice, or simply want to know the difference, the main takeaway is that the barrister pleads the case and the solicitor builds the case for the barrister.
Do solicitors have to pass the bar?
In the United Kingdom, solicitors do not have to pass the bar, but they are required to receive a practicing certificate. Barristers are required to gain admission to the bar.
Can I be both a barrister and a solicitor?
In countries where both jobs exist, it is possible for you to become both a barrister and a solicitor, as long as you pass the appropriate exams. To become a solicitor, a barrister does not have to leave the bar.
Do I have to use a solicitor before I speak to a barrister?
No, you do not have to go to a solicitor and can speak to a barrister directly about your case if they are a Public Access barrister. Since not all barristers are permitted to work with members of the public, they must complete a special training first to become a Public Access barrister.
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Please note: This blog post is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Please consult a legal expert to address your specific needs.
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