You are Leader of the Midland Circuit, Chairman of the Bar Council member Services Board and Head of St Philips Chambers Regulatory Group. To what do you credit your success?
Hard work, a lot of luck, the understanding and support of my wife Nicky and the ability to fool some of the people all of the time.
What have been the highlights of your career?
Being Called to the Bar was a great day. My Mum was a teacher and my Dad had a shop that sold spare parts for and repaired domestic appliances. As a youth I had a Saturday morning job there; if I had stayed doing that I suspect my call out rate might now be better than those of a publicly funded criminal Silk. There have of course been a number of other highlights. Being made a Recorder in 2004 was a surprise as I did not expect to be appointed at the first time of asking. The greatest moments though have been taking Silk (at the second time of asking) and being able to tell my father that I had been made Queen’s Counsel. He was very ill at the time and was not well enough to make the swearing in ceremony. He died 11 days after I was sworn in but told me he had lived to hear the news. I had a fabulous day at Westminster Hall and the RCJ with my family and senior clerks. The party afterwards rounded off a great day. Finally, to have been elected the Leader of the Midland Circuit by my peers was a great honour, which hope I can live up to.
What is the best advice you have been given in your professional career?
To apply to join 1 Fountain Court in Birmingham. I originally intended to join the Royal Navy. I arranged pupillage in London intending to run off to sea thereafter. I realised though that the Bar was for me. I decided then to apply to Birmingham and 1 Fountain Court gave me a 3rd six pupillage and then tenancy. It was like a big family and there were many great barristers there who supported and encouraged me throughout my career and continue to do so.
Who have been some of your most memorable clients to date and why?
I have what I describe as an “F-word practice” – fraud, filth and fatality – so it is difficult to name individual clients. The most memorable cases over the years have included representing a deaf and dumb client charged with indecency offences. The whole trial was conducted with sign language interpreters and I had to take great care that I did not use any sign language unwittingly, and to ensure that the correct words or phrases were used when questioning. I prosecuted a very big fraud concerning beer kegs leading Jenny Josephs from St Philips Chambers and a great team of police officers. By the end of the case we could identify any beer keg we saw from the colour banding on it; sadly all of the kegs we dealt with were empty. I recently prosecuted a 13 year old who was convicted of murder. It suddenly hit me whilst the interviews were being read out that he was two months younger than my son. What was already a sad case became even sadder with that awful realisation.
What advice would you give to practitioners experiencing cuts to publicly funded work?
I obviously do not have a crystal ball and cannot see what the future holds. I am heartened though by the recent announcement by the Government that the legal aid scheme which has borne the brunt of the cuts so far will be protected this time round. I hope that this means that there will be no more cuts. It will be a very short-sighted decision if this approach changes. The publicly funded Bar has borne the brunt of many cuts in recent years and the system is now at breaking point. I appreciate that there is no money in the Government coffers but the Government must appreciate that it is in danger of doing irreparable harm to our revered legal system. My advice to anybody who has experienced the cuts is to try to diversify and to look at other options to support their publicly funded income. I myself am now direct-access qualified. I also sit as a Recorder and as a Fee-paid Judge of the First Tier Tribunal (Mental Health) and am a Chairman of the Financial Reporting Council disciplinary tribunals. I am though an eternal optimist and am hopeful that this Government is beginning to realise that a strong and independent Bar is an asset which must be preserved.
How do you like to spend your time away from chambers?
When I get the chance I like to spend my spare time with my family and friends. I enjoy taking holidays when I can and the last two years’ family summer holidays have been spent travelling by train throughout Europe. My two children love it as it is a big adventure and my wife and I love it as we do not fall out about navigation issues and nor do we argue over who can have a drink at lunchtime – we both can.
I am an eternal optimist and am hopeful that this Government is beginning to realise that a strong and independent Bar is an asset which must be preserved
Richard Atkins QC was interviewed by Guy Hewetson and Chris Owen of Hewetson Shah LLP