Hongli Yang ’15 – The British legal system truly is an interesting one. After visiting the Inns of Court, we went to visit the Littleton Chambers and the British Library. In the UK, Barristers and solicitors, two important parts of the legal profession, practice in very different ways. I believe my peers have demonstrated enough on the differences between a solicitor and a barrister in previous blogs. But it was really invaluable experience to go to a real chamber and talk to a great barrister.
Littleton is a leading set of barrister’s chamber, which practices on very broad legal areas, such as commercial, employment, injunctions, disciplinary and regulatory, sports, mediation and arbitration. In fact, Littleton is so great at those areas that members of the chamber appear against each other. Chris, a successful junior employment barrister, and Jason, one of the clerks in Littleton, shared with us their own experiences. Pupillage, a process to become a barrister in the UK, is a training contract. It includes a six-month shadowing, and another six-month practical legal services. Chris took his pupillage with some other barrister’s chamber before joining Littleton, and has enjoyed a great legal career so far. He told us that barristers, in addition to the privilege of appearing on court, are also experts in specific areas, and can help drafting the litigation. Therefore, instead of only doing arguments in courtrooms, barristers do participate a lot in the client’s cases. Due to the independent nature of barristers (barristers in the UK must work as independent , it is hard for women to pursue a career as barristers, and Oxbridge graduates dominate the barrister occupation.
On the other hand, Jason, a clerk working in Littleton, showed us the interesting relationships between clerks and barristers in a chamber. Clerks advise clients (mostly solicitors) to get an experienced and affordable barrister. Barristers specialize in different areas and some may not be available to take a new case by the time a client requests services. Therefore, clerks can decide a barrister’s “business”. But also, clerks are paid through a fund that draws a percentage of the barristers’ salaries, and some clerks are even some barristers’ personal assistants. Thus, the relationship between a clerk and a barrister is a bit complicated. The interaction between clerks and barristers resembles a financial “symbiosis”, I guess.
Leaving from Littleton, we then moved on to the British Library. The British Library is the national research library in the UK. It is also a legal deposit library, meaning that this library automatically receives of a copy of publications in the UK and Ireland (through some government agreement). The British library houses 14 million books, and some manuscripts that date back to 2000 B.C. Originally part of the British Museum, the library was separated in 1973, and moved to a new building in 1997. The current British Library is the largest public building in the UK constructed in the last century. Among the notable collections are the Diamond Sutra, the earliest dated printed book, in 868 A.D. in Tang Dynasty; several early manuscripts of the Bible in kione Greek; The Lindifarne Gospels; and Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook.
But in regard to the purpose of this trip to London, the British Library is a must-go because it houses the Magna Carta. Actually the Library devoted a single purple room for Magna Carta to demonstrate its significance in the history of the UK. Magna Carta is “The Grand Charter” in Latin, and was first created in 1215. Magna Carta was later revised due to the constant changing political background. Although Magna Carta failed to work as a “constitution” then, the concept that the King is also under the supervision of the law is historically crucial. Laws could limit the King’s power. Magna Carta established the mindset of the supremacy of law that later give rise to important legal documents, such as Habeas Corpus, and the Bill of Rights. No wonder, Magna Carta was the first important legal documents we encountered in our class.
From what I have observed and learned in the past few days, the common law system in the UK is constantly improving and very interesting. The UK legal system might be a lot different from the U.S. system. But the underlying principles are similar. History is not an endpoint. It can also be a roadmap to the future. I am extremely thankful for such opportunity to come to London and experience the history and development of the common law myself.