What is a barrister, and do I need one?


If you’ve ever seen someone roaming around the city wearing a silk robe and wig and wondered what they do in court, you’ve come to the right place. Chances are you won’t see a Judge out in public wearing this attire, but you will see a barrister.

This is the time you also need to forget everything you heard from the television series Suits and characters talking about “passing the bar exam”.

There are many specialised areas of practice within the legal profession, and it is common for practitioners to transition from lawyer to barrister. In NSW, they both play a crucial role in the proper administration of justice. But what is the difference, do you need both and how much is it going to cost?

What is the role of a barrister?

The first thing to note about barristers is that they are entirely independent. They cannot form business associations with any other person which might compromise that.

To be eligible to become a barrister in NSW you must be admitted as a solicitor, sit and complete the bar exam (not the same one in Suits) and complete further reading and study.

In contrast to solicitors, barristers (often referred to as “counsel”) spend almost all their time in court. They are skilled in presenting arguments and their advice is often sought in complex legal matters for clients, solicitors, businesses and government.

Barristers are sole practitioners and are responsible for seeking their own work. This is why it’s important for a barrister to form relationships with solicitors. Some barristers work for the government full time as a crown prosecutor or public defender. There is a specific law that grants them independence in this context, enabling the barrister to provide their services to the government regardless of the political party in office.

Do I need a Barrister?

If your matter does not go to court, it is unlikely you will need a barrister. If we compare your lawyer to a doctor or GP, then a barrister is the equivalent of a specialist surgeon.

Your lawyer remains first and foremost the best spokesperson for you. They assess your legal position and provide advice on the ideal outcome. But sometimes when a case becomes lengthy or complex, your lawyer may recommend engaging a barrister.

The barrister will then be ‘briefed’ by your solicitor who will go over the background of the matter, relevant documents and give them direction about the outcome you want in court. Your barrister will then appear in court as your legal representative, attend mediations and draft evidence.

The barrister’s role is distinct from your solicitor, as their specialist skills in arguing matters in court can be valuable.

How expensive will it be?

Barristers are independent from a lawyer and charge separately for their services. Although it is an additional expense, a barrister will provide an objective and independent view of your case. The prices a barrister will charge vary but can be as much as $1000 a day. Senior barristers can charge much more.

Although in some cases, the expertise of a barrister may help you avoid a lengthy court process altogether, so it is worth engaging their help sooner rather than later.