On the 23rd of June 2016, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union by 52% to 48%. The outcome of the EU referendum not only shocked the world but also revealed a divided country.

In our latest piece, the Lawcommonroom interviews criminal Barrister at 187 Fleet Street, James Onalaja, to find out his take on Brexit and the EU referendum.

James Onalaja

Lawcommonroom: If you could describe the EU referendum result in three words, what would they be?

James Onalaja: Disappointment, shock and now depression.

LCM: Why?

JO: I was utterly disappointed by the campaign on both sides. Firstly, with the Remain camp for their inability or unwillingness to put forward a positive case for the UK to not only support the existence of the EU but to be an active member in order to secure its future. The case for the EU is not just one of selfish economic benefits to the UK through membership of the single market, or one of providing efficient, skilled and key workers for a whole host of UK industries. The EU as an institution promotes peace, European unity, democracy and development.

LCM: Can you think of a time the EU has come to the rescue?

JO: It was not so long ago when Europe was divided by the iron curtain; when chains of tyranny held the people of Eastern Europe in bondage; when the economies of those nations were so decimated that communities were dying not just in the prisons and gulags but of hunger. I still have memories of the period when mistrust amongst certain European nations and struggle over resources, led to the years of slaughter in the Former Yugoslavia, particularly in Bosnia and later in Kosovo. Carnage on our doorstep which led to the influx of refugees into the UK fleeing the slaughter and ethnic cleansing.

The European Union has been central in peacefully leading all those former Eastern bloc countries out of tyranny into stable democracies, helping them to rebuild their economies, industries and communities.

LCM: What are your thoughts on the Brexit campaign?

JO: I fear that the Brexit campaign really was about utilising certain misrepresentations to pander to the innate suspicion or fear we sometimes have of people with different cultures and languages. They package it as wanting to take back control over immigration from the EU.

Through their misleading dog whistle to nationalistic jingoistic claptrap, they have unleashed something very dangerous in this country and beyond. This country has come a long way from the 1960s and I fear the Brexit campaign have undone decades of work. By using foreigners as an excuse for their own failures to properly utilise the resources of the nation to adequately provide for the population, the racists are set loose to wreck their havoc around communities. Hate crime is on the increase even within schools. Empathy and compassions for those less fortunate than us or those “different to us” is being drowned in a sea of bile. The leaders of the Brexit camp have a lot to answer for.

LCM: What are your thoughts on the Brexit leaders?Vote Leave campaign leader Boris Johnson speaks at the group's headquarters in London

JO: The Brexit leaders say it’s about sovereignty and taking back control from unelected EU bureaucrats. The fact of the matter is that these EU bureaucrats (The EU Commission) are no more than employed civil servants implementing decisions made by the EU Council of ministers. The Brexit leaders argued that we didn’t elect the EU decision makers. Each nation state of the EU is fully represented in the decision-making body that is the EU Council. Each democratically elected government of member states are represented by their relevant minister, prime minister or president to argue the case for their particular nation. Decisions implemented by the commission are made on a qualified majority basis, and in very few and dwindling cases of national importance, member states have a veto.

LCM: The Economic reality of Brexit is shocking, should law students be worried?

JO: Yes, they have every reason to be worried because as the economy begins to contract, economic activity begins to stall and the jobs become less easily available. However, they also have the power to change things.

LCM: Do you have any tips for budding barristers?

JO: Yes, in no particular order…

  • Start experiencing what life at the bar is like as early as possible by doing mini-pupillages. Try to stand out during your mini-pupillages by being proactive and making yourself useful to the barrister you are shadowing.
  • Join one of the Inns of court and start networking with barristers by engaging in the life of the inn through participation in their various societies. By making yourself known around your Inn, you stand a much better chance when you come to apply for scholarships from the said Inn.
  • Keep up to date with developments in the profession by reading the publications that barristers are reading. This will include Counsel magazine and the Barrister magazine.magazine
  • Have a life outside of your studies which makes you stand out. This could be working part-time or volunteering at the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) or the Appropriate Adult Scheme at police stations.
  • Prepare to be disappointed, rejected and ignored. Let that be a rallying cry to doubling your efforts.
  • Lastly, do not put all your eggs in one basket and persist on chasing after a goal that is unachievable. Know when to admit defeat and pursue other opportunities.

LCM: Do you have any tips for mini-pupillage applications?

JO: The basic mistake that many applicants continue to make is sending CVs and cover letters riddled with spelling and grammatical errors. It really gives the impression that one is not serious about a career at the bar (which involves a lot of written advocacy) and thus one cannot complain if chambers do not take that kind of applications seriously.

Quick-fire Questions:

  • What do you do for fun? Travel
  • How many countries have you travelled to? Over 50 countries
  • When was the last time you visited Nigeria? 2014
  • You’re a photographer and artist- which do you enjoy the most? I probably do a lot more photography these days but I particularly enjoy the therapeutic calming impact of painting or making a piece of art.


James Onalaja has developed a solid common law practice for himself at 187 Fleet Street. 10 years and counting, James has been instructed on high-profile cases ranging from Cross-border money laundering cases to multi-million pounds’ tax dispute cases. The foundation of his practice is in criminal law and as a result, he has mastered the art of Advocacy.

Disclaimer: The views James expresses here are his own and he does not presume to speak for the Bar or any other body.


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