Public law refers to the relationship between individuals and the government. In the UK, public law is made up of constitutional/administrative law, tax law and criminal law.
Why is public law important? What does it involve?
Public law is important because of the unequal relationship between the government and the public. The government is the only body that can make decisions on the rights of individuals and they must act within the law. A citizen can ask for judicial review if they are unhappy with a decision of an authoritative body.
Lawyers who are concerned with public law can specialise in various areas of law including constitutional/administrative law, tax law and criminal law. These areas of law are slightly different. For example, if you worked in constitutional/administrative law, you could be working alongside the NHS, local council or other governmental bodies.
Criminal lawyers work on all aspects of a case including investigation, liaising with police and appeals. There’s usually a lot of paperwork involved with criminal law!
Break it down for me a little bit!
There are several theories as to why public law is different to private law. These have evolved over time, but it’s widely regarded as a combination of the subjection theory and subject theory. The subjection theory suggests that public law governs the relationship between the person and the state and private law governs relationships of individuals. The subject theory suggests that if a person finds themselves in membership of a public body, public law applies.
The combination of these two theories results in public law being defined as a field where an actor is an authority with the power to act unilaterally. If this authority is acting as a public entity, public law applies.
Some areas of law do not seem to fit into either public or private law. For example, employment law falls into both—the employment contract is a private law matter, whereas health and safety in the workplace is a public law issue.
A day in the life of... Lucy Coe—trainee at Browne Jacobson
In just a few words, could you explain the sort of work you do in public law?
I work in the government, regulatory and advocacy team, specialising in environmental, planning and public law. The work is incredibly broad and while all linked together by public law principles, it can vary from advising on data protection to drafting planning obligation agreements.
What kind of projects have you been working on so far? Do you tend to take on short-term tasks or working on longer-term projects?
The team offers a real mix between short and long-term projects. I manage quite a few of my own files and at any one point will have a handful of planning agreements to negotiate.
Trainees also support the regulatory team in their investigations on behalf of public bodies which can take several months. Separately, working within the public law team frequently means working to very quick timelines, for example I have aided in a few urgent advices on data protection where the public body is under legislated time pressures and is concerned about the release of information, whether by request or otherwise. More recently, I have also prepared a string of two to three more complex advices to public bodies on the extent of their powers to offer grants or change their current policies. This has required detailed analysis of legislation, guidance and constitutions. I am delegated new matters as any other junior would be in the team and while there will always be some level of discrete task supporting other team members, the main bulk of my work is my own matters run for the duration under appropriate supervision.
Which area of public law are you most interested in (eg constitutional/tax/ criminal)? Environmental law—I was lucky enough to be supported by the firm in attending at the UK environmental law association annual conference recently and really developed my passion for the area. In the team, environmental principles are becoming an ever-increasing concern and priority for planning authorities and local councils. We also advise numerous environmental bodies on the extent of their regulatory and advisory powers. This is particularly so in the wake of Brexit and the looming “green watchdog” which has played a starring role in the monthly conservation newsletter that trainees in the team produce. I have aided in providing updates on air quality and its increasing impact on planning law, conducted detailed research on discrete areas related to tree pests and advised on the direct impact of case law on the Habitats Regulations 2017.
How does this seat compare with others you have completed?
Anyone within the team would tell you that being a trainee in the environmental, planning and public law team is more akin to being a newly qualified solicitor than most seats. I am given a substantial amount of responsibility, not only by managing my own files but including direct contact with clients and sorting my own billing. There is no “ghost writing” in this team and trainees generally provide a full first draft of any advice. It can be intimidating as a trainee at times but the support and supervision within the team is truly excellent. The work is primarily advisory with a small amount of transactional and contentious work and is a fantastic seat for any trainee. I’ve truly loved my time in this team and would say it has really aided in preparing me for qualification.
Does your work put you in direct contact with clients?
A predominant amount of our work is advisory and completed from the office. However, I do regularly pick the phone up to clarify and confirm instructions with clients. If there is a significant conference call on a matter on which I have supported, the senior leading the call will ensure that I am present, introduced to the client and engaged. I also had the opportunity to recently lead on a call with a client where I had provided a string of technical advices and they were looking for clarification on the detail.
As the team assists with regulatory and advocacy, I have attended at both inquests and regulatory investigations where I have spent the day with clients. I am also working with the other trainee in the team on a pro bono matter which has included direct contact with the client and witnesses including taking their statement.
The team also supports juniors in accessing networking opportunities and one of the highlights of my seat was attending at the Thought Leadership Dinner in London which was attended by a mixture of our clients and other invitees from senior and executive positions across non-departmental governmental bodies and other public sector organisations.