The life of a serious crime QC

From representing footballer John Terry to acting in the Hillsborough Inquests and the Child Sex Abuse Inquiry, there are few dull moments for Serjeants’ Inn’s Chris Daw QC

Twenty years ago, Chris Daw QC visited Alabama and was struck by what he saw.

Across the pond, if you can pay for justice, you will receive it in the form of a mastermind lawyer. If you can’t, you’ll be landed with a (sometimes) bumbling public defender.

At the time this was an American phenomenon, one that looked very foreign to the United Kingdom’s criminal law players. “You could be homeless in the UK”, Daw told his American lawyer friend, “and still be represented for murder by the top QC in the country”. Now — since George Osborne’s 2010 brutal butchery of the legal aid budget — we’re not all that far away from the Alabama system.

This grim reality is turning aspiring criminal lawyers off the bar, and not without warrant. “If you look at some of the legal aid fees paid to junior criminal barristers”, Daw tells us, “there are cases where you’d make more money at McDonalds.” But, there is another way to make a good living at the criminal bar — the business of privately paid criminal work is booming.

Daw was called in 1993 and since then has enjoyed an eclectic practice in crime, business regulation and professional discipline. He practises from Serjeants’ Inn Chambers, the award-winning clinical negligence set that is also well-known for its police law, public law, professional discipline, inquests and inquiries work, and acts in the main for high net worth individuals, companies, professionals and senior police officers.

It’s the criminal aspect of his work he has a particular passion for. Having spent much of his teenage years hanging around crown courts (“I’d watch the trials and think ‘this is better than telly!’” he reminisces), criminal law still brings about that childlike excitement for Daw. “It’s the best job in the world”, he tells Legal Cheek Careers, and continues:

There is nothing in legal practice than can match the experience of hearing your client has been acquitted by a jury. There is a reason why so many TV dramas are set in and around criminal courtrooms. You physically feel it when the foreman or forewoman stands up. To be able to say I have had that experience so many times over the past 20 years is incredible, and quite addictive.

Though he became au fait with the magistrates’ courts as a junior, Daw now focuses on more serious crime.

A case can be serious for different reasons. Ultimately it depends on the perspective of the client.

Over a decade ago, a former client of his was given multiple life sentences and ordered to serve a minimum of over 14 years. A grim prospect for most, yet “that’s not too long” was the reaction of Daw’s client after sentencing.

Others would take the news like a ton of bricks. If a police officer was found guilty of shoplifting, for example, that would mean career over. “For many wealthy or professional clients”, Daw explains, “a criminal conviction of any kind could destroy their reputation, their family, their finances and their career.”

And that’s what many of Daw’s individual clients tend to be: wealthy. Since taking silk in 2013, he has run a solely privately funded practice, so instructing him hinges on a client’s ability to pay his fees or to have indemnity from an employer or insurance. The reason for this:

Legal aid will not pay for the level of work I do on cases. It won’t fund the sheer amount of time I think is necessary to do a case properly.

Daw now has the benefit of being able to channel his time into particularly high profile, interesting cases. In his last year before taking silk, he represented footballer John Terry over allegations he racially abused a fellow player during a Premier League match. In silk he led for senior police officers on the “evidence gathering” element of the Hillsborough Inquests, and is now advising a police client in the Child Sex Abuse Inquiry. Because he acts in only four to six criminal trials a year, he has the luxury of doing good cases and doing them well.

Seeking out clients and cases of this status meant heading south, to London of course. Having studied and completed pupillage in Manchester and with a family home in Cheshire, Daw joined a London set in 2011 and moved to Serjeants’ Inn in 2016. (He does, however, keep an egg in the regions basket, as he is a member of Lincoln House Chambers in Manchester.)

Working in the north and working in the capital are two totally different ball games. In Daw’s opinion:

It’s definitely much more competitive in London. It’s a faster pace of life and people work longer hours, partly because of the huge commutes they have. The Northern Circuit is a much more friendly place, in part because everybody knows each other.

Take a punt on the Big Smoke, or stick with your hometown? Find your feet in the regions, says Daw:

If you get a pupillage in Manchester it almost guarantees you get a tenancy at that set, whereas London can be more competitive.

‘Competitive’ is a word that aspiring pupils are no doubt used to hearing, but — unlike some other criminal law practitioners who like to profess doom and gloom at every opportunity — Daw sees a glimmer of sunlight between the clouds. He tells Legal Cheek Careers:

I do have an unusually optimistic view of the future of the bar. There is a demand for excellence, and people will pay money for excellence even in criminal law, so deliver excellence. For those who are absolutely passionate about criminal law, they need to pursue it; the opportunities will be there.

But be realistic. There are challenges faced by members of the criminal bar on a day-to-day basis; one of the most common complaints is nasty clients. While Daw acknowledges his “high-maintenance” defendants can be rude, ungrateful and difficult, he thinks dealing with it is part and parcel of being a good lawyer. “Most people that have the normal courtesies of life tend not to get charged with gruesome murders, after all,” he says.

This is the reality of life at the criminal bar. You have to be “100% sure” it’s the life you want and the life you are willing to work to get. Anything less than that won’t do.

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