From History at York to criminal law

Alumnus Ben Brown on York student media, tanks and legal aid

For me, York really was the only place to do a history degree. I mean, you can’t fail to be inspired with such wonderful surroundings really can you? From the outset, I knew that my degree would be a stepping stone towards completing my Common Practitioners Examination (CPE) and Legal Practitioner’s Course (LPC) with a view to a career as a solicitor.

I was housed in the infamous Wentworth College’s ‘Wenty C Block’ (since demolished on health and safety grounds, as I understand it). The collegiate system was fantastic allowing you to make friends in college but also on your degree courses who may hail from other, more exalted colleges (such as James College where they were rumored to have en suite bathrooms and butlers).

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Ben at work

At the time I was at York, the legendary Peter Lee was Provost (I am still in contact with him) and his May Day parties were a rite of passage never to be missed. Lecturers-wise Jim Sharpe stands out; his enthusiasm for witchcraft in early modern England was both inspiring and slightly worrying but made for a great course. My supervisor was Joanna De Groot who (if I recall correctly) specialised in Women’s History and was less than impressed when I decided to do my dissertation on WW1 tanks….

I was involved in loads of societies (even joining the jiu jitsu club in Freshers Week) and was always helping with Raising And Giving (RAG) activities such as bungee jumping, parachuting, abseiling and drinking in the Charles. I also did a lot with the mighty University Radio York (URY). URY was made up of a great bunch of people many of whom have ended up high in the media industry. During my time URY ended up sponsoring a Buccaneer Strike Aircraft at Elvington because of me – but only because Nouse sponsored a tank! URY in those days still used records and cut news bulletins together with magnetic tape and a razor blade and used cartridges. We got minidiscs though when I was there so I suppose that was the start of the digital age.

After graduation and two years at the College of Law, York, I secured a training contract in Wellingborough in Northamptonshire. I qualified in 2003 and have been working in the town ever since. I am certain that the ground work for my career was laid at York – skills researching, preparing and presenting, together with those interpersonal skills so important in dealing with clients.

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Ben and his 1945 Willys Jeep

I currently work for Cartwright King Solicitors, the country’s largest criminal defence firm. I suppose I could have gone the ‘corporate’ route and gained a Porsche, but instead I went with real job satisfaction and a Ford Focus Estate.  I firmly believe that everyone is equal before the law and that everyone has a right to fair, impartial legal advice and good, honest representation in the courts. That’s what the firm stands for and why I work here.

Criminal law allows you to meet a huge cross-section of society including those who have been dealt a harsh hand in life, from people shoplifting to survive to those involved in more serious offences such as murder. As a duty solicitor I am often on 24-hour call to the police station – you never know what or who to expect – the variation really appeals to me as much as the people I deal with.

Criminal legal aid is under huge threat from the Government. Right to free representation for the most vulnerable is a cornerstone of our democracy and bit by bit it is being eroded. Prosecutions always hit the headlines but who ever considers the defence? You won’t until it’s you or someone you care about who needs a defence advocate.

As for my love of history? Well it’s not been forgotten. I set up Sywell Aviation Museum in Northamptonshire with some friends soon after I left York and its been running since 2001. It has won awards, which we are very proud of and has expanded to twice its original size. I’ve taken about 12,000 kids around the museum and hope to inspire them to consider aviation as a career. I also help run a biannual airshow in aid of the local air ambulance. I am restoring a WW2 aircraft in my spare time and, when not hooning around in my 1945 Willys Jeep, I also fly an old aircraft (badly).

So as I close and realise that I’m old; it has been 20 years since my studies began. I have a lot to thank the University of York for;  it made me who I am and helped me start a career.