Skip main navigation

How to study criminal law in the UK

Interested in learning how to study criminal law? We explore what criminal law is, the courses available to you, and how to land yourself a job.

Criminal lawyer looks at her case

Whether you’ve been inspired by the fictional barrister in your favourite crime drama or simply want to help keep the general public safe, joining a criminal law course could be a great option for you.

Criminal law is one of the most well-known areas of legal practice and continues to be a popular career path for students in the UK. Approximately 55 universities offer undergraduate criminal law courses across the country, which means there are now more opportunities to study in this field than ever before.

In this article, we will explore how to study criminal law, including what it is, why the profession is important, the courses available to you, and how to get yourself a job. 

What is criminal law?

Criminal law is the practice of assessing criminal offences and regulating the arrest, charging, and trial of suspected offenders. An offence arises when someone is perceived to be behaving in a threatening or harmful way towards other people, animals, land or property. Once an offender has been convicted, the correct law is applied to determine the appropriate penalty. 

Criminal laws and legislations aren’t just used to regulate how society behaves, but also to help individuals understand the consequences of any wrong actions. Punishable behaviour can include:

  • Murder
  • Sexual assault
  • Terrorism
  • Theft
  • Property damage
  • Money laundering
  • Motoring offences.

The work of a lawyer in criminal law very much depends on the type of criminal work they specialise in and whether they’re working as part of the defence or the prosecution. For example, a criminal defence solicitor may work for a high street law firm tackling fraud, whereas someone who works in prosecution may work for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), the main prosecuting body in England and Wales.

Why is criminal law important?

The purpose of criminal law is to ensure that members of society know how to behave and have respect for one another. Without criminal law, there would be a huge amount of uncertainty and there would be no legal consequences for wrong actions. Criminal law makes it possible to resolve conflicts in a controlled and regulated manner, creating a fairer system for everyone.

This is why it’s important that the profession continues to attract bright, talented students that want to help make a difference and contribute to society.

What do criminal lawyers do?

As we mentioned previously, what a criminal lawyer does will depend on their specific area and whether they’re working for the defence or the prosecution. Here, we will look at some of the general tasks and responsibilities of both barristers and solicitors.

Responsibilities of a criminal law barrister

  • Assessing the case with a legal team and the client
  • Analysing the entire history of the case and looking at other relevant cases
  • Making an argument in court, working for either the defence or the prosecution
  • Providing the client with advice and expertise about the legal process throughout the hearing and the outcome of any trials.

Responsibilities of a criminal law solicitor

  • Discussing the case with the client and team members
  • Speaking to the client about the case and how to handle the criminal law process 
  • Researching recent cases that may have set legal precedents to use when building an argument
  • Working with clients and legal teams to ensure they win the case
  • They may also be required to attend court.

How to become a criminal lawyer

Like all other areas of law, you must either obtain a qualifying degree in law or another recognised degree that is followed by completion of the Graduate Diploma in Law. 

After this, you’ll need to complete the Legal Practice Course and any other relevant training if you want to become a solicitor, or the Bar Professional Training Course followed by a pupillage to become a barrister.

There is also an alternative route through the Crown Prosecution Service Legal Trainee Scheme. However, there are limited spaces and the application process is incredibly competitive.

Before you think about studying criminal law and eventually becoming a lawyer, it’s also worth thinking about whether you possess the right personal skills to succeed. Some important attributes are included below.

What skills do you need to be a criminal lawyer?

  • The ability to thrive under pressure – You will often work under high-pressure situations, so it’s important you’re able to thrive and deal with cases effectively. Due to the fast-paced nature of the role, the ability to remain calm in a stressful environment is essential.
  • High attention to detail – When it comes to winning a case as a criminal lawyer, it’s the finer details that can often get you over the line. You’ll need to forensically deal with key information quickly and efficiently in order to get a positive outcome in your case.
  • Open-minded and fair – Every client has the right to a fair trial, so you’ll need to ensure you always stay open-minded. You’ll work with a diverse range of people that all need to be treated fairly, no matter the context behind the case. It’s important to be non-judgemental.
  • Good communication skills – Whether you’re talking to clients or fellow members of your legal team, excellent communication skills are a must. As you’ll be providing legal advice, it’s important you’re able to communicate effectively and in an easy-to-understand manner.
  • Thick skin – You’ll often be exposed to horrible situations and hear about nasty incidents, which can have a serious impact on someone’s mental health and ability to do their job properly. You’ll also work with clients that are under a lot of stress, so you’ll need to be able to deal with them in a calm and collected manner.
  • Analytical skills – Whether you’re a barrister or a solicitor, analytical skills are essential when using information to win a case. For example, as a solicitor, you may need to analyse previous legal cases in order to assist with the current case you’re working on. 

You can find out more about how to become a lawyer with this course from the University of Law.

Criminal law salary in the UK

Jobs in criminal law are relatively highly paid. However, salaries will often vary depending on your location, the firm you work for, and the level your career is at. The average salary for a criminal lawyer in the UK is £41,952.83 per year. If you work in London, then you can expect this average to be slightly more at around £52,500.

Criminal law courses

Although you can become a criminal lawyer by obtaining a degree in any discipline and then taking your Graduate Diploma in Law, most people with a passion for this area will choose to study an undergraduate degree that specialises in criminal law.

According to Whatuni, there are roughly 55 universities offering 136 criminal law courses in the UK. How you choose which university to go to is entirely up to you. Sometimes, the best university for a particular subject isn’t necessarily the best choice for you as an individual, so it’s important to consider this when looking at criminal law courses.

As a guide, SI-UK has listed the below in their top five universities list to study law in the UK:

  1. University of Cambridge
  2. University of Oxford
  3. London School of Economics
  4. University College London
  5. University of Glasgow.

Criminal law work experience 

Criminal law is a highly competitive field, so having some relevant work experience can prove to be invaluable. The kind of work experience you should consider will depend on whether you want to become a criminal law solicitor or a barrister. 

Often the best way of getting some work experience is through an internship, which gets you off to a good start in your career and exposes you to the sort of work you’ll be doing. As an intern, you’ll also be able to make useful contacts in the profession and possibly get a training contract or pupillage.

Many university courses will have some work experience built into the programme. They also offer pro bono initiatives. 

How to study criminal law: additional learning

Hopefully, you now know a lot more about criminal law and how to start your journey to becoming a criminal lawyer. While it’s a competitive field and a high-pressured profession, there are numerous benefits associated with being a criminal solicitor or barrister, and jobs can be incredibly rewarding.

With the help of FutureLearn, learning how to study criminal law doesn’t have to be difficult. As well as the information in this useful guide, we also offer a diverse selection of courses relevant to criminal law that can help further your learning and deepen your understanding. 

Continue your journey with us, so you can expand your skill set and reach new career milestones and goals.

Online criminal law courses at FutureLearn

Related stories on FutureLearn

FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now