Kathryn Skellorn QC

Kathryn was called to the Bar in 1993 after reading Law at Oxford. Now based in St John’s Chambers, Bristol, she has a specialist Children Act practice – one of five family law practitioners to be made new silks – and deals with complex care work and contentious private law matters.

Kathryn told me that she was born in a deprived area of Cardiff to very young parents. Growing up, the family had moved widely around England and Wales for reasons linked to her late father’s profession and Kathryn attended no fewer than ten schools. She recognised with affection her mother’s skill in forging a new home life time and time again in very testing circumstances. Talking about her upbringing in a bit more detail, I got the impression of somebody who had been determined from an early age to get on, whatever challenges life threw at her. In the process she acquired an ‘old head on young shoulders’ having had to function at a high level from an early age, fitting into new settings and taking a pragmatic approach to life and its opportunities.

Kathryn won a scholarship which enabled her to attend Bar School. Kathryn said she chose law as she wanted “a practical career”. She worked her way through university doing a range of temporary jobs, from legal secretary through ISO (International Organisation for Standardization) inspector. One summer a postcard she pinned up in the law library was seen by Susan Jacklin (now QC and the current Chair of the FLBA) who employed her for a summer doing administrative work in her chambers, providing not just funding for Kathryn’s studies, but also an understanding of life in a set of chambers. One of Kathryn’s optional papers at Oxford was family law, which had an immediate appeal. Kathryn said that shipping law or tax law would have provided no ‘drive’ for her as “ships and money don’t get hurt, kicked or shaken”. When at law school, Kathryn also undertook cases for the Free Representation Unit, and she looked back on that time and experience with considerable gratitude.

Medico-legal issues were at the heart of Kathryn’s practice. She regularly did complex trials centred on fatalities and serious injuries (including brain and ophthalmic injuries, burns, fractures and bruising) and had particular experience in cases of disputed obstetric injury and haematological disorders. Additionally, Kathryn was experienced in child sexual abuse cases. For her, medico-legal issues presented an intellectual challenge for an advocate, providing the opportunity to assimilate the details of individual injuries and conditions and to find “the key piece of information that was buried away in the handwritten scrawl of a medical note or in the background of a photo” and which “could stop the train in its tracks” – with potentially huge implications for the client. “I watched my pupil master (now HHJ) Mark A Horton do it time and time again in criminal trials. One page in thousands… one question…that was the one”.

“I am in my natural element in court”, she said. “We work as barristers; we become barristers, giving 100% to the clients and the court”. The role defined a great part of who you were as a person. She spoke about her style in court as that of a “defuser” of situations, whilst still being robust. It was important to make clear to the client what you needed to do for their maximum benefit, even if it was not what they wanted to hear, “knowing when to engage to find out what you needed to know and when to disengage and to serve the client’s best interests by being somewhere other than at their elbow”, and keeping focussed on the priorities. You sometimes had to be very firm with clients, and occasionally with judges to – for example, when it was essential to gain a pause in order to settle an agitated client or call for disclosure and avoid the loss of a day or an entire fixture. Kathryn saw her identity as a ‘Western Circuiteer’ as elemental to her identity as an advocate; “it is a charmed life and a great privilege to be at home in court centres across the west and the south west.”

Turning to her application for silk, Kathryn said that you reached a stage in your advocacy career where people you trusted and respected began to suggest that the time may be right to apply to become a Queen’s Counsel. The actual ‘spur’ was being led in two cases by very experienced QCs, which was “fantastically reassuring” in terms of seeing them lead their teams in an inclusive way, and look to her for opinions. This gave her confidence that silk was something she felt ready for.

In the five years leading up to her silk application, Kathryn said that she had found herself taking a much greater interest in law-making, particularly concerning safeguards in appellate authorities. It was not a matter of reading the case law and simply accepting it as a ‘given’, but to question it and, if necessary, challenge it or participate in enlarging or changing it. Kathryn felt that solicitors tended to come to her if their challenging cases needed fast analysis, flexible thought and stalwart advocacy. Sometimes that meant starting as a lone voice and then turning a case round witness by witness, submission by submission, day by day.

Discussion turned to how Kathryn went about completing her application form. She said that she came to the conclusion it was vital to write your own form. It was a big task but she had had “real respect” for the form once she had completed it and could not imagine by then permitting anyone else to take charge of it. You had to think really carefully about your cases, and this provided a “fascinating prompt to just how much work and what a variety of work you had done in the period”. The process of completing the form enabled you to drag the information “out of deep memory storage”. She said that she sent her judicial assessors the documents she had drafted and filed in cases being assessed (skeleton arguments and written submissions) but she did not approach any of them once the application was underway. As to the interview, Kathryn said that she had not had an interview for many years and that barristers were generally not very good talking about themselves (as opposed to about their clients). She had felt in need of interview training in order to “settle myself” about the interview, and did so quite early on, a good few months before any interview might be held, so that she had time to assimilate the advice.

Kathryn was critical of the interview as a process, notwithstanding she ‘passed’ it, and she was keen to express her reasons for her criticisms: she considered a 35-minute interview was insufficient as she felt that she would have needed half a day to give the Panel “a real sense” of her as a person and as an advocate over her time at the Bar.

Finally, how did she manage to balance work and life? It was a matter of “plate-spinning”, she said. The priorities and demands changed from week to week, from day to day, from hour to hour. Support and understanding from family members was crucial. And to relax, Kathryn said that she runs. Whether or not there is a very long evening of work ahead of her, she will try to take one hour out for that “mind-clearing” run.

 

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