I know what instructions to a barrister are, BEFORE court.

When it is appropriate to use a barrister, the barrister is sent ‘Instructions' (when asked to give an opinion on a case) or a 'Brief' (if the barrister is to appear in court). Good instructions should give background on a case and will generally include the following:

  • Who you are and whom you act for
  • Who your dispute or potential dispute is with, and the nature of it (e.g. ‘unfair dismissal claim by former employee’ or ‘boundary dispute’)
  • A brief background which usually sets out the relevant events in chronological order
  • Any relevant deadlines (e.g. limitation dates, hearing dates or time limits for serving evidence)
  • What you want the barrister to do

There are no set rules on how the instructions or briefs should appear or what papers should be sent. However, where you are asking counsel to draft pleadings or appear in court, you should consider the following additional points:

But "instructions" appear to mean something else, when blurted by the barrister himself IN court TO a judge! What's this second sense of "instructions"?

  1. MR ROBERTSON: May I take instructions on another matter?

  2. MR JUSTICE MITTING: Certainly. (Pause)

  1. MR BOWEN: May I take instructions?

MR MILLAR: May I take instructions so that I can find out what our position is?

THE LORD CHIEF JUSTICE: Yes, by all means. I am speaking for myself -- and if my colleagues have anything to say on it they will say so themselves -- my only concern relates to the five people we have called the "young witnesses".

  1. MR BLUNDELL: I am very grateful for that judgment, may I take instructions for a brief moment? There was a consultation on the point that I am going to address your Lordship, I am taking instructions on in just a moment.

  2. MR JUSTICE BEATSON: Whilst you are getting instructions let me explain to -- can you wait a minute?

  3. What I have done is you have failed but if you heard what I said then you will see and I have not made an order of costs against you, and of course Mr Blundell may try to persuade me that I ought to, but I have not because of what I have said in the judgment. Yes Mr Blundell?

  4. MR BLUNDELL: In fact I will just take instructions. (Pause)

  5. My Lord I am very grateful for the indication your Lordship has given. Those behind me have taken instructions, we are not going to seek to persuade your Lordship to make any other order.

  1. MOULES: Indeed. May I take instructions on one final matter? Your Lordships do have discretion not only to quash the order, but also to remit the matter back. Insofar as my client has incurred costs resisting Mr Dixon's application in the Magistrates', that matter falls due to be decided.

  2. MR JUSTICE CRANSTON: Do you want time to think about it?

  • 4
    In the United States, a lawyer would say, "may I confer with my client?"
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jan 30, 2023 at 18:39
  • 1
    Would they also just be called a lawyer? barrister "a lawyer entitled to practice as an advocate, particularly in the higher courts." ... Y'all's legal system has a caste?
    – Mazura
    Commented Jan 31, 2023 at 1:18
  • @Mazura I’m dying! 🤣 Commented Jan 31, 2023 at 1:24
  • 2
    @Mazura England splits its legal profession.
    – user42021
    Commented Jan 31, 2023 at 1:30
  • 1
    All your QCs are now KCs. It's perfectly reasonable to refer to them all just as "KC" even if they were QC at the time of the quote, because they are still alive. You don't need "now KC". Commented Jan 31, 2023 at 13:19

3 Answers 3


Lawyers cannot act for their client without instructions.

"May I take instructions" is a request by the barrister to have a conversation in confidence with their client about what to do next or how to respond to the court. Sometimes this is just a momentary discussion, but if necessary, this can even result in the court standing down for a short break, or fully adjourning to another day.

It is not a euphemism used to disparage the client.

  • 3
    FYI in E&W, taking instructions isn't always just "a brief conversation". Trials and prelim hearings can be (and are) adjourned to a later date if necessary, especially in serious and compex cases.
    – user35069
    Commented Jan 28, 2023 at 13:06
  • 1
    @user35395 I would assume that's at the discretion of the judge. Not all trials are alike, so it would be unfair to force every barrister to have the same time limit.
    – Cadence
    Commented Jan 28, 2023 at 23:57
  • It will take as long as that party needs. A barrister can only represent his client in court, which is the reason he's in court, if he knows what his client wants. Out of courtesy the assumption is that if something unforeseen has occurred and he indicates he doesn't know how his client wants to address it then he doesn't know - and he must be allowed to find out. This is very simple. There is no time limit. If he asks for an adjournment of 10 minutes and he hasn't properly found out during that time, then there's another adjournment.
    – ool
    Commented Jan 30, 2023 at 21:16

It means “We’re going somewhere I didn’t anticipate and I need to ask my client what they want to do”

Quite often it also means “My dickhead client hasn’t given me all the facts and now they’re f#%ked and I need to advise them how to mitigate the damage.”

  • 1
    Perhaps this is a separate question, but how often can barristers interrupt a proceeding, to "take instructions"? Plainly, barristers cannot do this often, elseways the barrister will look unprepared and waste the court's time. And the barrister will rile the judge!
    – user42021
    Commented Jan 31, 2023 at 4:02
  • 1
    @user It is a separate question. Why have you commented on every answer? Commented Jan 31, 2023 at 13:21

It's simply a request to turn their back on the judge or bench and consult with their client. Not everything which comes up during a hearing can be forseen and often the lawyer needs to check how to respond to it; for example, unanticipated evidence from a witness, or to check whether a fine can be paid at once or will need to be in instalments.


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