My parents were from Dublin. They left school early and came to this country in search of a better life.
At the age of 11, as a result of a bad decision by my parents, my family lost everything. I was brought up in abject poverty. For a week or so we had to effectively squat in the council flat that we used to occupy. Furniture was provided by the church and our gas and electricity were paid for by slot meters. In the last two days before my father received his state pension, there would be no money to pay for electricity and heating. I studied by candlelight.
My life was in chaos. The only thing I could control was my weight. At one stage I became anorexic. I weighed six stones six pounds when I was 16.
However, I obtained some adequate results in my O levels and went on to study A levels. This was a very difficult time. My father, who had been ill for most of my life, was slowly dying, although we did not realise it at the time. My mother had a nervous breakdown and could not cope. The domestic violence was awful. I flunked my A levels. I decided to try and resit them. Those nine months were the longest of my life.
I will never forget the day of my A level results, which resulted in an offer to study Law at Kingston. I could not believe it. University meant hope and a real sense of independence for me.
Unfortunately, my father died during my first year at university. It was a difficult time as I was an only child and had to support my mother. However, we survived, and I graduated.
Getting into the Inns of Court School of Law, which was the only Bar course provider at the time, was not easy with a 2:2. However, I managed it and thoroughly enjoyed the eight months I spent at Bar School. My time there opened my eyes to a new world.
I clearly remember the Qualifying Sessions the Inn organised for us, not least the wonderful nights I spent in Middle Temple Hall. In December 1992 I attended the Cumberland Lodge advocacy weekend where I met the late Sir Stephen Tumin, who was then the Chief Inspector of Prisons. It was under his watch that slopping out in prisons was brought to an end. Subsequently, I was fortunate enough to be able to accompany him on prison inspections.
I was Called to the Bar on Thursday 14 October 1993, a wonderful day which will stay with me forever. At the time I was working as a clerk to the Industrial Tribunals in Woburn Place where Master Barbara Calvert worked.
There then followed the long hard road to obtaining pupillage and tenancy. Whilst I was doing this, I completed two stints as a Judicial Assistant, one to Master Nicholas Phillips on the Maxwell case and the other with Master Geoffrey Rivlin on Brent Walker. I will never forget how inspirational and helpful these two Benchers were to me.
I was delighted to obtain a pupillage in London, and grateful to Middle Temple for awarding me a scholarship, which made it much easier financially. I obtained a tenancy in Leeds and practised on the North Eastern Circuit for 17 years. In 2013, I relocated to London.
I have tried to dedicate my time to the Inn through mentoring, running four London Marathons for the Scholarship Fund, teaching advocacy, judging moots and serving on the Hall Committee. In return, the Inn has continued to be there for me in my darkest times.
I have always tried to fight for the poor, the weak and the vulnerable. I hope I have given some sort of voice to the voiceless. Middle Temple, through its support and the help of many of its members, has been vital in my own journey.
To the young men and women who may be reading this thinking of the many obstacles in their way, I would like to say this: I am nothing special, I only had the nerve to dream. I have been let and put down so many times in my life, however, I have always fought on. Nothing is impossible. Believe in yourself. Knock down the barriers. A life at the publicly funded Bar is not easy. However, 30 years after being called, I wake up virtually every morning with hope in my heart wanting to do the very best for my client. To me, it still is the best job in the world.
Never stop thinking you can change the world and in some way you will. Give the best of yourself and especially for others. Whatever your Middle Temple journey, travel well.
James Keeley was Called to the Bar in 1993. He began his career in London as a judicial assistant in two of the biggest fraud trials in history. Whilst in London he was involved in Serafinowicz, the first ever War Crimes Trial. He is a legally qualified Chair for Police Disciplinary Tribunals and is proud to serve the British Boxing Board of Control (Southern Area).