We owe it all to 5 people

9 July 2024

As part of our 70th anniversary year, Fiona Barton KC and David Messling take a look at the history of 5 Essex and how things have changed since its inception. 

The origins of Chambers – Fiona Barton KC

We owe it all to 5 people. Chambers was founded in 1954 by a small group of 5 people who were friends as well as colleagues, they settled at 5 Essex Court and so our name was born. By the time that I joined in 1986 numbers had grown to 16 but there was only one woman. This latter fact was obvious from the fact that the bathrooms had very lightly opaque glass in the doors which were completely see through once the light was on. A few weeks after I joined I asked if it would be alright if I brought in a tin of paint and painted over the glass in one of the bathrooms so that I might use it instead of going down to Middle Temple Common Room! No problem they said – as long as I did the painting.

I had two pupil supervisors, the late John Sabine who had a mixed common law practice and then the late Laurie Marshall whose practice included the then nascent area of police law – people didn’t really sue the police in those days. I loved my early days in 5 Essex, interesting and varied work and a very warm and inclusive welcome. The welcome was as warm as the premises were freezing – no central heating and gas fires (not in all rooms) which were eventually condemned, forcing us to invest in the luxury of central heating in the mid-90s. No more need for the thermal vests.

As police law grew as a niche area of practice so did the team in chambers specialising in that area of work and we began to make our name as experts in the field. Numbers were growing along with our reputation. The open door policy within chambers meant that the early expertise in chambers was harnessed and shared across all levels of call. The supportive atmosphere meant that no question was too stupid. We were all learning fast and chambers as a whole was benefiting from our collective approach.

A watershed moment came in 2003 when it became apparent that the future of the bar was increasing specialisation. The civil practitioners split from the criminal team and 5 Essex was re-born as a purely civil set specialising in police and public law. We went from numbers in the mid 30s back down to 17 – it was a leap of faith, not least because we took over the 5 Essex premises even though our numbers had halved. Fortunately, we had built a strong foundation and instructions increased in both volume and profile.

Instructions on the Lawrence Inquiry, the Bichard Inquiry and the Hutton Inquiry put 5 Essex on the map as the “go to” set for public inquiries, no doubt assisted by the fact that Jason Beer KC decided to write a book which has become the leading text on this area of law. All the time the number of tenants was gradually increasing to meet the workload.

Almost 40 years after I joined, the nature and profile of our work may have changed but the ethos of 5 Essex remains the same as the day I joined – welcoming, open and inclusive. This is perhaps our greatest achievement and has undoubtedly contributed to us being the Chambers with the second most female KCs and 44% female members, a sea change from 1986. This working environment in Chambers has been further enhanced by our recent move to new premises fit for the 21st century. We have may have tweaked our name to 5 Essex Chambers but our work ethic and ethos remain the same and will hopefully carry us forward for years to come as new members take up the baton.

How Chambers looks today – David Messling

If one of Chambers’ five founder members happened to stroll through the doors of 6 Field Court in 2024, what would they make of it all? We now work in a world of remote hearings, paperless practice, social media, and (mostly) reliable coffee machines. Many of the topics our colleagues grapple with – artificial intelligence, facial recognition, data protection to name a few – might well have seemed the realms of science fiction to the 1950s bar. They would search in vain for bundles tied in tape and, whilst pausing to admire the hard copy law reports so carefully arranged on the shelves of our conference rooms, might wonder why they all seemed to have ended abruptly in the early 2000s.

The start of my time in Chambers coincided with our venturing onto Instagram. 382 posts and counting have helped us share the life of Chambers with aspiring future lawyers, whether that be the allure of dawn breaking over a distant railway station platform or our successes at the latest awards ceremony (not to mention the cats in wigs).

Whilst no doubt intrigued by the intricacies of social media, our founders would, we hope, be delighted that Chambers continues to be committed to shaping the future of the bar. Each year we interact with hundreds of students through pupillage fairs, university talks, mini-pupillages, Chambers open events and the pupillage recruitment process itself. Since 2012 we have published a detailed annual report on our pupillage selection round – the first set of chambers to do so – and we continue to take pride in our openness.

My life as a junior tenant is in so many ways a world away from those pioneers. And yet I like to think that the fundamentals of Chambers would be instantly recognisable to them. We are a community of professionals, working to serve our clients and to support each other. Chambers has grown to over fifty members and it is a rare event which gathers us all in one place, but email and WhatsApp mean that the expert advice of colleagues is only ever a few taps of the fingers away. Any one of those founding five could, we hope, pull up a chair, or perhaps even be added to the group chat, and feel right at home.


Fiona Barton KC

Call 1986 | Silk 2011

David Messling

Call 2017


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