A Q&A with Mark Thomas

A Q&A with Mark Thomas

Mark Thomas is a Pupil Barrister at the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), based in Yorkshire and Humberside. As part of Mark’s pupillage, he has the opportunity to engage in a secondment with a private set of Chambers to experience life as a self-employed barrister. Mark joined KCH Garden Square on 9 January 2023, and will complete his secondment with Chambers on 17 February 2023. Mark begins his practising-period (“second-six”) on 27 March 2023, and is expected to complete his pupillage in September 2023.

This is Mark’s account of his time with Chambers and his experience away from the employed Bar. It is hoped that the Q&A style of this account will provide readers with a useful and engaging insight into Mark’s journey to the Bar and KCH Garden Square.

What did you do prior to a career at the Bar?

I completed the vocational component of my training in 2014. At that point in time, however, I chose to enter the academic profession, finding that I had a particular talent for teaching. I delivered numerous guest lectures and assisted in the creation of new modules and courses at the School of Law, University of Sheffield, before then becoming a Teaching Associate in 2015. Following on from that, I became a Lecturer in Law at Nottingham Law School, Nottingham Trent University (NTU) in 2016, where I stayed until September 2022 when I joined the CPS as a Pupil Barrister. Whilst at NTU, I was responsible for modules and courses across the undergraduate and postgraduate portfolios, being promoted to Senior Lecturer in 2019, and Principal Lecturer in January 2022.

Why did you decide to make the change from academia to the Bar?

Whilst I chose not to pursue a career at the Bar in 2014, I have never ceased in my desire to practise as a barrister. In my teaching, I would often emphasise the difference between “theory” and “practice”; encouraging my students to consider the application of the law in real-life contexts. A common example that comes to mind being: “Yes, in theory and substantive law, the defendant may be liable for a criminal offence, but in practice, there may be insufficient evidence to actually prosecute this individual” [referring to the application of the Full Code test].

In academia, I had the opportunity to teach some brilliant minds; many of whom have gone on to practise at the Bar, or as a solicitor. I often considered: “If I am teaching these individuals, and preparing them for their future careers – what’s stopping me?” With a great deal of encouragement and motivation from my closest friend, I decided to give it a go, and in 2021, I applied for pupillage.

I was well aware that, if successful, I would have to obtain a dispensation from the Bar Standards Board (BSB) to allow me to complete pupillage beyond the five-year window specified in the Bar Qualification Manual. This did not deter me, however. I was confident that my near seven years of experience in academia, my publication record, and my maintained links with the criminal Bar would ensure that the dispensation was granted. Luckily, it was.

As a result, at the end of September 2022, I commenced my pupillage with the CPS and I have never looked back!

Why did you choose to undertake pupillage at the employed Bar, specifically at the Crown Prosecution Service?

I am often asked “What attracted you to the employed Bar?” and “What attracted you to the Crown Prosecution Service?”

In respect of the former, it is fair to say that I was apprehensive of being self-employed. As a man in his 30s, having only ever been employed, the notion of holding responsibility for my own tax liabilities worried me. Additionally, the self-maintenance of pension contributions, insurance and indemnity, and the lack of payments relating holiday and sickness, provides natural concern for someone with a mortgage to pay and a family to support., Perhaps more significantly, however, I have no reservations in describing myself as the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand when discussing money or finances. Such concerns may well be puerile in the grand scheme of things, but that is the simple fact. For those reasons, the employed Bar appealed to me more than the self-employed Bar.

In terms of the CPS, I was attracted to the role of a prosecutor. Appearing on behalf of the Crown, a prosecutor remains responsible for all aspects of the case against an accused. This means that they bear responsibility not only for the complainant, but also the defendant. A prosecutor must be fair, independent, honest, and open; a prosecutor must not seek to obtain a conviction by any and all means necessary. A prosecutor works with a variety of individuals and organisations; something defence counsel may not have the opportunity to do. A prosecutor must have regard for the interests of the complainant, the defendant, and the public at large; what other job bears such responsibility? Whether it is a sense of duty, responsibility, or pure interest: the life of a prosecutor had, until now, been my primary focus with any potential career at the Bar.

What sort of cases do you see at the Crown Prosecution Service?

Naturally, I only engage in prosecution work. I have had the opportunity to deal with an array of cases in both the Crown Court and the magistrates’ courts across Leeds and Sheffield. These cases range from offences of violence and theft, to road traffic and regulatory offences. Given the expanding size of the Crown Court Advocacy team in the CPS, I have shadowed different advocates (of varying seniority) and observe the work that they are undertaking. From the attempted theft of a goat for sacrificial purposes, to the robbery of a £10 note from an elderly lady, to the prosecution of football hooliganism; no day is ever the same at the CPS.

What attracted you to a secondment at KCH Garden Square?

Having worked in Nottingham for the past seven years, I have had the opportunity to engage with the local Bar and observe its members. Indeed, some of my former students have gone on to practise at the local Bar. Their opinion is one that is shared with my own: KCH Garden Square is one of the leading sets on the Midland Circuit.

In my role at NTU, I have worked closely with KCH Garden Square with employability events and advocacy competitions. In this time, I could see that KCH Garden Square was (and remains) a set that truly wishes to engage the local student body, source and furnish talent, and develop its own members. I have seen first-hand the friendly, approachable, and professional nature of the members at KCH Garden Square, as well as the expert clerking team, which give their support and dedication to Chambers’ members.

I am pleased by the fact that I have been able to confirm all of the above during my secondment with Chambers.

What have you seen at KCH Garden Square?

During my time with KCH Garden Square, I have observed both prosecution and defence work in the Crown Court, across Nottingham, Chesterfield, and Leicester. I have seen a high number of offences of violence, ranging from assault occasioning actual bodily harm (ABH) to grievous bodily harm (GBH) with intent, property offences including theft and robbery, and sexual offences including allegations of historic sexual abuse. My time with KCH Garden Square has allowed me to see a larger number of trials, and to experience a greater number of Crown Court centres, than I am able to do whilst with the CPS. I have had the opportunity to engage with a number of Members within KCH Garden Square’s Criminal Team, and to experience advocacy at all different levels of the Criminal Bar.

Since your secondment, has your view of the self-employed Bar changed?

To an extent, yes. I cannot deny that I remain astute to the challenges of being self-employed. However, I feel more reassured having spoken to members of Chambers about their practice, and the support they receive from the expert team of clerks at KCH Garden Square. Discussions of fees, processes, payments, tax, liabilities, accountants and many more terms that I dread to identify do not fill me with the same level of concern as it did previously. I cannot say that my concerns are extinguished in their entirety; but they have been allayed to the extent that I would feel confident away from the employed Bar.

How about your desire to only prosecute? Has that changed?

The short answer is: Yes. I have had the opportunity to engage with lay and professional clients from various backgrounds and speak to them about their cases. Admittedly, some clients appeared more challenging to converse with than others; but that is the nature of the job. Experiencing life from a defence perspective has widened my view of the work involved and the challenges faced by those defending. When it comes to preparing cases, I have a new-found insight into the thought-processes of defence counsel, their approach to testing prosecution evidence, and the manner of dealing with defendants.

I have often been described by friends as having a prosecutor’s mind; whilst I am not entirely sure what this means, I am satisfied that not only would I reap the same level of rewards from defending as I would from prosecuting, but I would also enjoy it.   

Any concluding thoughts?

There was a time in my life when I would have told you that I was only interested in the employed Bar, and only interested in prosecuting. This secondment has opened my eyes, broadened my perspective, and injected a bit of realism in that mindset. If any readers are at the employed Bar, or are considering life at the employed Bar, my advice is not to discount self-employed practice as quickly as I may have done. The quality of the work, combined with the collegiality of the people involved, make for a highly sought-after career.

My final words are simply a matter of sincere thanks: Thank you to the CPS and to KCH Garden Square; I am grateful to both for allowing me to undertake this secondment.

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