In England and Wales, the law falls into two main ‘streams’, Criminal and Civil.
Civil law deals mainly with private actions taken by individuals, organisations, companies or groups against one another for everything from disputes about business, employment, contracts, injuries and property. Barristers specialising in civil law practice in civil courts that hear such disputes.
Criminal law on the other hand deals mainly with criminal offences. It is extremely difficult to give an exhaustive definition of what a ‘crime’ is, especially since, according to David Ormerod and Karl Laird in Smith and Hogan’s Criminal Law 14th Edition, there are now more than 10,000 criminal offences in English law, excluding those created by by-laws. However, the criminal law covers a wide range of conduct, from relatively minor driving offences to thefts, harassment and stalking, assaults and other forms of violence, robbery, drugs, sexual offences, cruelty to animals, fraud and business crime, firearms and weapons-related matters, money laundering and, at the very top end, serious and organised criminal activities including murder and terrorism. Typically, a criminal trial will involve the state (or Crown) prosecuting individuals or groups for specific, prohibited behaviours, and where the penalties can include community orders or even imprisonment. There are also many other organisations that investigate and prosecute cases in the criminal courts including:
- the Environment Agency
- Her Majesty`s Revenue and Customs (HMRC)
- the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA)
- the Serious Fraud Office (SFO)
- the National Crime Agency (NCA)
Criminal barristers often work for more than one of these agencies and often both prosecute and defend cases. A criminal barrister may be instructed to prosecute a case for the Crown, or Crown Prosecution Service, and at the same time be working on a case instructed by another agency. Barristers work on more than one case at a time, often preparing cases when not in court. Defence barristers are instructed by solicitors or the public directly. Solicitors represent clients following arrest and often instruct barristers to represent their clients when the case goes to court. Some barristers only defend.