Bristol-based multidisciplinary set St John’s Chambers is one of the largest chambers in the South West, with almost 80 barristers, including seven KCs. Founded in 1978 by six barristers “keen to break the mould of conventional practice”, the set splits itself into three main areas — family, personal injury and clinical negligence, and commercial and chancery — and takes on one pupil in each of these core areas per year. Members also take on work in employment, public law, administrative law, and the Court of Protection — to name just a few areas — with these usually having some link to their core areas. Essentially, the set does everything except criminal!
When it comes to family law, St John’s has expertise across the board, including in children law cases and finance cases. The set has particular expertise in handling cross-jurisdictional matters, and is often the go-to set for the more complex cases. Barristers have worked on complex public children mandates involving sexual abuse and trafficking, and many cases cross over into Court of Protection work. Recent high-profile cases include Lucy Reed securing permission to report the identify of a former MP and government minister found by the Family Court to have raped and abused his wife, and Zoë Saunders appearing in a significant High Court case which resolved the uncertainty surrounding the need to establish detriment or a change of position in joint family home cases. The set has also launched a new family arbitration service with retired Judge, Nick Marston, as a qualified arbitrator. They are the only set in the South West offering this service.
In the personal injury and clinical negligence team, barristers find themselves working for claimant and defendant clients, whether it be insurance companies, NHS trusts, or private individuals. The set has particular expertise in cases involving allegations of dishonesty and fraud, industrial disease, stress at work, surgical negligence, and dental negligence. Whether it be a failure in diagnosis or an accident at work, the issues arising are often complex. Tenants James Marwick, Matthew White, and Julian Horne recently secured a triple success in a Court of Appeal case arising from a fatal car accident. The case concerned the extent of the duty of care owed to unintentional trespassers by occupiers of land adjoining the highway, and the potential liability of the relevant highway authority for the configuration of the road — certainly plenty to get your head around! Meanwhile, Andrew McLaughton earlier this year successfully defended a claim brought against a Local Health Board by the widow of a man who committed suicide, her claim being that there were inadequate arrangements for out of hours care for psychiatric patients. Another tragic and very human case which raised complex legal questions.
On the commercial and chancery side, work can range from real estate litigation to construction to will and trust disputes. Whether this is spats between families or claims in the millions brought by offshore trustees, the members of St John’s will have the expertise to deal with it. This past year has seen Charlie Newington-Bridges appear in the High Court trial of a just and equitable winding up petition relating to a French stock market listed technology company worth €9 million, Charles Auld successfully appear in a rare case of fraudulent calumny (a poisoning of the mind), and Leslie Blohm KC act in the high-profile civil case of Leeson v Mcpherson, which involved a civil claim against a husband who was acquitted of murdering his wealthy heiress wife.
Whatever team barristers at St John’s Chambers work within, their work tends to be “diverse and interesting” and one junior tells us that “no two days are ever the same”. Something that ties much of the work together is the fact that it has a very human focus, whether it be a dispute about a will or an inquest following the death of a loved one. As one tenant tells us, there is “interaction with people and public bodies and therefore often important aspects of public interest”. Of course, not every case will be fascinating. Some work is “quite routine, but I think that is only to be expected”. As one junior puts it, while there is some “mundane work” around, “pretty often something novel and important comes up”. One thing is for sure, the breadth of work always helps to keep things interesting.
The atmosphere at St John’s Chambers is said to be highly supportive, with members “always willing to talk over cases when needed”. There are WhatsApp groups for both personal and professional support, ‘phone a friend’ and emails for “tricky legal points that you want a second opinion on”, as well as providing “encouragement and reassurance”. What’s more, “people are always open, friendly and helpful” according to another insider, which another tenant regards as “a real strength of chambers”.
When it comes to work/life balance, the view seems to be that it is pretty good at St John’s. The clerks are said to be “very receptive to requests and often book in preparation days when booking in a final hearing or trial”, according to one member. Another tells us: “serving clients comes first: when hard work is needed, I work hard, sometimes very hard, but this has its rewards too. But, I am my own boss and overall my balance is good”. One junior tells us that they take 8-10 weeks holiday a year and are “uncontactable for that period”. Of course, experience can vary depending on practice area. One tenant explains “50% of my practice (child public law) is publicly funded so over the years my income in real terms has substantially dropped meaning I have to work more to meet my expenditure needs. So, I would say my work/life balance suffers as a result”. Similarly, one KC jokes: “I’m a silk. We are not entitled to [a work-life balance]. It’s a folly entirely of our own making.”
Perhaps because everybody in chambers is so busy, the social life at St John’s has not entirely recovered post-Covid. As one insider says, “not as many people come into Chambers as they used to”, while another adds that it “will take a little while to get back to normal”. We do hear, however, that practice groups tend to organise their own functions, whether this be drinks, dinner, or events such as cricket matches. We hear cricket is a big deal at this set, as it apparently has its own team! There is also an annual boules tournament in Bath. Overall, “the social aspect is still alive, just not as frequent!”
When members do come into chambers, they certainly have a good spot. The set is located in Victoria Street, a short walk from Bristol Temple Meads train station and close to the iconic harbour. Whilst we hear that “the outside doesn’t look much” and is rather “unremarkable”, the inside of the premises has recently been spruced up through a refurbishment, and now boasts a full suite of technology for conferences and remote hearings. Working areas are open plan and described as “modern, light, airy and spacious” meaning it is “far more business-like in appearance than traditional barristers’ accommodation”. It does still, however, still “need a bit of work” according to one tenant. In terms of IT, there is a “high level of support provided with three specialist organisations offering expertise”. We do hear, however, that “problems creep in when providers blame each other”. Generally, though, admin staff have “a high level of knowledge and are available outside office hours if needed”.
Those wishing to secure a pupillage at this Bristol set should apply through the chambers’ own application form. Applicants are advised to stress any connection that they have to the South West. Around 20 candidates will be invited to a first-round interview which will involve a short advocacy exercise as well as general application questions. The interview lasts around 30 minutes and is conducted by a panel of three. Around nine candidates are then invited to a second-round interview, which involves a mock court hearing, with papers sent in advance. The entire interview is around 45 minutes and is again in front of a panel of three. In each round, skills such as analytical thinking and advocacy skills are assessed, with the precise criteria and marking scheme being published on the Chambers’ website.
Each year, one pupil is typically taken on in each of the three core practice areas. They will each receive a pupillage award of £50,000. The specialised pupillages give pupils a solid grounding in their chosen areas. Whilst experiences and structure of pupillage will vary depending on practice area, pupils can generally expect to conduct legal research, prepare pleadings and opinions, and attend conferences and court. Whatever pupils specialise in, they are likely to find themselves on their feet in court right from the start of their second six and are expected to manage their own caseload as well as completing work for other members of chambers.
A former pupil says that “pupillage was brilliant, with close support and guidance from both the practice group and Chambers more widely”, whilst another describes the training as “first-class”. We’re also told that a buddy system is in place for pupils to discuss any welfare issues. Training doesn’t end with pupillage. We hear that members of chambers’ different practice groups give seminars and lectures throughout the year, which are performed together with external training by senior counsel and judiciary. Informal training through colleagues helps along the way too.
St John’s Chambers takes its commitment to equality and diversity seriously. This year, they have welcome their first placement from 10,000 Black Interns. The set also supports the Western Circuit’s ‘BarNone’ campaign, offering at least 50% of its mini-pupillages to candidates from under-represented backgrounds. We are also told that those involved in the pupillage selection process have been offered Fair Recruitment and Selection/Unconscious Bias training.