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Speaker's Corner with Joanne Wicks KC of Wilberforce Chambers

Posted on 29 April 2024

We invite the leading lights of the property disputes world to tell us all about who they are and what they think. In this latest edition, we hear from Joanne Wicks KC of Wilberforce Chambers.

Can you explain a bit about your role?

I have what might be described as a portfolio career. Most of my time I work as a barrister, either advising clients or appearing in court. For about six weeks of the year, I sit as a Deputy (i.e. part-time) Judge in the Chancery Division of the High Court. I also act as an arbitrator, independent expert or mediator, helping to resolve disputes out of court.

I enjoy the different roles, and each gives me a different perspective. Sitting as a judge really helps me see what makes for good advocacy. It’s about paring things down, being clear, logical and focused on the issues the court has to decide. I have learned just how soul-sapping it is to have to wade through lengthy skeleton arguments comprising reams of hyperbolic vitriol; that it can be difficult to understand what points are being made when oral arguments meander without an apparent structure. On the other hand, being involved in arbitration, for example, which can be procedurally nimble and tailored to the needs of the specific dispute, has brought home to me some of the shortcomings of litigation in court.

Like most barristers, I’m self-employed but a member of a set of chambers. It’s an unusual organisational structure but it has great benefits and I’m surprised it has not been adopted in other walks of life. On the one hand, you get the advantages of self-employment: you are paid for the work you do; you are sufficiently independent of your colleagues that you can act on opposing sides of the same case; you can go on holiday or take time off for your child’s sports day without having to justify it to anyone else. On the other hand, you get the advantages of community support and co-operation: there are colleagues willing to discuss a knotty issue; staff with a range of different and important skills; shared marketing endeavours and, increasingly in the modern world, the benefit of a chambers 'brand'. That isn’t to say that life as a self-employed barrister doesn’t have its challenges. Hours can be long; the always-on culture can be stressful and however much you debate with colleagues, the difficult decisions fall to you alone. A set of chambers may be a friendly and collegiate environment, but its flat organisational structure can hamper swift decision-making.

What does your average day look like?

The average day will see me working at my desk, advising in writing or in meetings – most of which are now, inevitably, by videocall. The variety of my work never ceases to amaze me. I cannot really understand how it can be that, despite specialising in property law for more than three decades, I so rarely get asked the same question twice! Being in silk is such a privilege. The work is immensely intellectually challenging, the clients are often high-profile and the disputes sensitive and difficult.

The amount of time I spend in court ebbs and flows. I might have a six-week trial, followed by several months without going to court at all. It may also be that I have a number of one- or two-day hearings peppering my diary. Lots of cases settle, so even when my diary is full of hearings many of them evaporate. I enjoy being an advocate, and I really miss it when I have a prolonged period of time without being in court. Ultimately, all law, whether it’s drafting a contract or advising on the application of a regulation – comes down to the question: what would a judge say about this if it were litigated? So bringing a case to a judge and arguing it out feels like the ultimate stress-test. But a courtroom is also an intensely human environment. The interactions between judge, witnesses, advocates, solicitor teams and clients are fascinating. That’s something we won’t get from AI dispute resolution!

What impact has market uncertainty had on your business and the disputes you have been involved with?

Property litigation work is, perhaps more than other areas of litigation, driven by movements in the markets. The nature of the disputes I work on changes, depending on whether markets are buoyant (in which case everyone wants to hang onto valuable assets and profitable deals) or falling (in which case everyone wants to get out of unprofitable deals, or sue the professionals that advised them at the time they did them). There’s a time lag between changes occurring in the market and advising on the legal consequences as a barrister. This is because it can take a while after the change before a dispute arises, it becomes contentious and a client decides they need Counsel’s advice on it or want to start legal proceedings.

How has the Covid pandemic changed life at the Bar?

The post-pandemic change in working practices has led to barristers and chambers’ staff working more often from home. I can see the advantages of working from home: my colleagues can have dinner with their young children, which was never a weekday option for me. I am also a big fan of the change in dress-code which Covid has ushered in. For 30 years I wore a suit to work almost every day; now I’m in jeans most of the time. However, like others, I particularly worry that junior barristers and pupils might feel unsupported or be deprived of that peculiar but important form of professional learning which comes from working in proximity to others. Increased working from home also has the potential to loosen important ties between members of chambers and risks people becoming isolated. I chair Wilberforce Chambers’ Wellbeing and Culture Committee, which runs a number of initiatives designed to reinforce connectivity within Chambers, foster inclusivity and support mental health.

How have you worked with Mishcon over the years?

I’ve worked with the Mishcon de Reya Property Litigation team many times over the years, and on some great cases. It demonstrates how much litigation settles, though, that none of them have yet gone all the way through to a trial. Having a strong team, who can build a litigation strategy from the outset and see it through, makes it more likely that the dispute will be resolved consensually.

What's the most interesting property dispute you've been involved in?

The highlight of my career so far was taking the case of S Franses Ltd v The Cavendish Hotel (London) Ltd to the Supreme Court. The case is about the circumstances in which a landlord can use a redevelopment project (ground f) to refuse a new tenancy to a protected business tenant. I’d been involved from the time of the initial trial, in the County Court, and we had lost both there and on appeal, but the Supreme Court was willing to ignore the argument that “this is the way we’ve always done it.” Appearing before the Supreme Court is both daunting and exhilarating. It’s a different experience from appearing in the lower courts, partly because of the sheer number of fiercely intelligent judges firing questions at you, but also because of the physical layout of the courtrooms. The advocates are on the same level as the judges, which helps to create an atmosphere of civilised debate about what the law is and should be. It’s the legal system at its best.


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