English Legal System : Barrister vs. Soliciter?

I’m a big fan of John Mortimer’s Rumpole stories, but one thing has always baffled me. In America, we pretty much just have lawyers. In England, they apparently have a two-tier system comprised of both barristers, who seem to be the ones doing the real arguing in court, and solicters, who seem to be the one drumming up the business. What is the real difference between the two, and what does it mean when it says that the soliciter "leads"the barrister?

You forgot the Queen’s Counsels Euty.

QCs are still barristers, just ones that have been granted the honour of being barristers for the Queen. That doesn’t mean they have done a case for the Queen, but rather that their service and expertise in their field has been recognised by the government.

Euty - barristers and solicitors are all lawyers, and solicitors do go into court but your basic idea is correct. My familiarity is with the Scottish system, where we have advocates instead of barristers and advocates are called in for special cases in the lower courts and have exclusive rights of audience in the higher courts. We now also have hybrids called solicitor advocates who are solicitors who have qualified to appear in the higher courts. Eventually, in my opinion, advocates are going to disappear and it will all be solicitors.

Advocates and barristers do not advertise for business and are never instructed directly by a client - always through a solicitor.

In Scotland, we says that a solicitor “instructs” an advocate, and has to be in court when the advocate appears. I would guess, but would have to see it in context, that this is the same or similar thing as a solicitor “leading” a barrister.

I think it is more usual to say that the solicitor briefs the barrister.

Another function of solicitors in the UK is to handle the day to day legal buisiness for people. If you want to draw up a will , sell or buy a house etc. then you would employ a solicitor. If you get arrested, it is to the solicitor who you call on to sit with you while you are questioned by the police. If the case goes beyond the ( first tier) magistrate’s court then the solicitor would engage a barrister to represent you in the Crown Court. Solicitors also work for large companies to deal with their legal matters.

“What is the difference between a barrister and a solicitor? Merely the difference between an alligator and a crocodile”.


There has been a campaign for Solicitors to represent their clients in the high courts where at present only Barristers are allowed to do this…

Not many, as a percentage of all solicitors, have the necessary qualifications and education required of barristers, but in large UK cities there are some well developed legal chambers whose solicitors do need to have a very good understanding of court methods and procedures, and would have the knowledge and experience to be able to make representations to the high courts.

One serious criticism of our current system is that a huge number of cases simply do not require the expertise of a barrister at all, using them in this way simply increases the cost of access to justice for members of the public, or put it another way, if solicitors were allowed to work in the high courts, then more of them would take the time and trouble to acquire the legal training and skills demanded, and there is a strong belief in some quarters that this would -----

Increase competition and maybe drive down prices.

Since the legal team involved in any high court case would have one less layer this would also reduce costs and prices.

Since there would be a greater number of legal proffessionals available then cases would be better investigated.

Since there would be more legal proffessionals then there would be a possiblility that cases could be brought far sooner, justice delayed is justice denied.

If prices were to be significantly reduced then more ordinary people would have access to the court system, which would have a major impact upon our legislators, since many potential cases never get anywhere near a court.

In such cases the solicitor/barrister demarcation acts as a restrictive practice.

This explains the issue far better than I,

Here are a few links for you.


Here is an explanation of the structure of our legal system to answer any questions you hadn’t thought of,


Becoming a barrister is a risky business. A solicitor will always have work coming in from the public but a barrister won’t necessarily.

Barristers are organised into “chambers”. When a solicitor passes a case on to one of these chambers the barrister’s clerk decides which barrister to give the case to. Since the barrister’s clerk works on commission he will tend to give cases to those barristers who he thinks will win the case. So if you are a barrister who has lost a few cases then you might find that not many future cases will come your way.

Barristers are self-employed. If they don’t get any cases they don’t get any money. This is why, believe it or not, many barristers are actually quite poor. Many leave the profession and go into other legal related work where they at least have a guaranteed income. Successful barristers earn a lot but there’s a huge raft of barristers who never make it to this stage.

One problem with this set-up is that people who tend to become barristers are often independently wealthy (ie they come from rich families etc) because there is no guarantee that they will earn anything out of being a barrister. This is bad because it means that a disproportionate number of barristers come from privileged backgrounds.

It gets worse because only barristers can become judges. So you don’t tend to get many working-class judges. Legal representatives (judges, barristers and solicitors) should represent all sections of society not just the wealthy.

In order to pass my law finals exam I had to borrow £10 000 (and I pay back £13 000 when you include the interest). I don’t come from a rich background and that’s a lot of money to me.