Helens Red Bag

Helen Johnson’s Red Bag!

You may be wondering whether this article is about the fashion preferences of the one of the founding partners of Emery Johnson Astills, Helen Johnson. Whilst Helen is noted for her style, the Red Bag referred to is actually a red, cloth bag in which she carries her Court Gown.

These bags are called “Brief Bags” and there is a very interesting history behind them. They are an essential part of the Barrister regalia.

Whilst Helen Johnson is not a Barrister, but a solicitor, much of the work undertaken by her is of the same nature as that usually carried out by Barristers. Helen Johnson is a highly experienced criminal advocate, regularly appearing in all the different levels of the Criminal Courts, including the Youth Court, the Magistrates’ Court, the Crown Court, the Old Bailey and the Court of Appeal.

Helen Johnson was given her bag by Ali Bajwa QC of Garden Court Chambers, as a result of her outstanding work alongside him in the case of Michael Piggin, the Loughborough Teenager recently cleared of terrorism charges in the Old Bailey. The case was first tried in Autumn 2013, but had to be retried in early 2014 after the first Jury had failed to reach a verdict. The second Jury were also unable to reach a verdict and it has now been confirmed by the Prosecution that they will not be seeking to retry Mr Piggin.

Helen Johnson and the crime team at Emery Johnson Astills assisted and acted for Michael Piggin from the time of his initial arrest in February 2013 and subsequent Police Station interviews, right through the entirety of the Court process.

Brief Bags are made in both blue and red cloth. They are often carried by barristers and used to store books, wigs and robes. Brief Bags usually bear the owners initials monogrammed on them, to assist with identification of the bag. The majority of established Barristers, and a few senior solicitors, own a Brief Bag.

Various theories abound regarding why Brief Bags exist. One of the theories is that the bag is the remnant of a now disused feature on the Barristers’ gowns. The black gown was adopted in 1685 when the whole Bar went into mourning after the death of King Charles II. The Barristers’ gowns originally had a long thin piece of black cloth hanging down the front of the gown and had hoods attached to them, known as mourning hoods, that were worn in the late 1600s. The use of hoods on Barristers’ gowns has ceased over a period of many centuries.

The colour of the Brief Bags for Junior Counsel, i.e. not Queen’s Counsel (QC) in England is dark blue. For QC’s red/burgundy coloured bags are used. Black bags are used for Irish Barristers and dark green bags for members of the Judiciary.

Although red bags may only be purchased by QC’s, they are permitted to award a red bag to a Junior Barrister (or in Helen Johnson’s case, Solicitor) whom they have worked with, usually in relation to a case that concludes at Trial or Appeal with a favourable outcome.

The red bags are considered to be a badge of merit and it is a prestigious honour to receive one from a QC you have worked with. They are given in recognition of contribution to the case and work undertaken over and above the call of duty. A witty note from the QC is usually placed inside the bag.

The gifting of a red bag is a ceremonial affair, and although no one seems to know when the ceremony started, there is much anecdotal evidence on this subject. Traditionally, the QC’s junior clerk delivers the bag to the Junior Barrister and is paid a fee in return. The fee varies, ranging from £10.00 to £25.00. The maximum fee of £25.00 does not seem to have increased for a considerable amount of time and definitely has not moved in line with inflation. There is a debate as to who should pay the fee to the junior clerk, whether it should be the Junior Counsel receiving the bag, the Junior Counsel’s senior clerk or petty cash from the Barristers’ Chambers. These days the QC will sometimes dispense with the practise of the bag being given to the Junior Barrister by his clerk and will just give the bag to the Junior Barrister directly.

In the 1970s it was said that if a “Senior Junior” Barrister had not been appointed as a Queen’s Counsel and after, say, 15 years of practising at the Bar had still not received a red bag, then there would be whispers in the Court Robing Room enquiring as to why no red bag had been received and aspersions cast that the Barrister was perhaps not up to standard.

On a lighter note, there is a famous quote from the Film “Brothers in Law” regarding the significance of red and blue Barristers’ bags:-

“The newly qualified barrister is buying his robes and when the salesman goes to put them in a blue bag, he naively asks for a red one. The salesman pompously explains the custom of giving a red bag, and goes on to say “and in your case Sir if no one has given you one in 10 years time I suggest you use a suitcase””.

Provided the tradition of Brief Bags is maintained, this may go some way to cut down the use of trolley cases, the use of which is prohibited on various staircases in the older courts. To date, it is not believed anyone has created a Brief Bag on wheels.

If you have been arrested, or are currently facing any criminal charges, don’t hesitate to contact the successful criminal team lead by Helen Johnson at Emery Johnson Astills on 0116 255 4855, for urgent and expert advice and assistance.