There is a widespread misconception amongst the public that criminal defence lawyers’ clients are all, well, criminals. They will happily trot out the old “innocent until proven guilty” but few actually believe that. Most think the opposite: “guilty until proven innocent” because, after all “there is no smoke without fire”. Further, even if a defendant is not guilty of the crime that they are presently being tried for, they are probably guilty of a whole heap of other stuff, so best just lock them up now and have done with it.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to argue that all of my husband’s clients are angels. Far from it. Many are out and out criminals. The kind of people most of us will never have the misfortune to come across. Like the one who threatened to hunt my husband down and slit his throat. And that was after he’d persuaded the judge to give him the drug treatment order that he wanted and needed, rather than the custodial sentence that the public would probably have preferred him to get.
Thing is, the real baddies often take his advice and plead guilty. They take his advice because they trust him. They don’t trust the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and they certainly don’t trust the police. The government and gutter press would have you believe that all criminal defence lawyers encourage their clients to plead not guilty, so that their cases go to trial and they can earn more money in the form of trial fees. Not true. The lawyer will always act in the best interests of their client, and often that will mean advising them to pleading guilty. My husband and experienced lawyers like him know when to make that call. A lawyer that is greener than the criminal he is representing (the kind of lawyer we might be left with if Chris Grayling gets his way) couldn’t do that. An inexperienced lawyer will most likely go along with whatever the mouthy criminal (who often has no idea what will work out best for him) wants to do: “I’m not gonna plead!”. Leading to a trial that is a waste of everyone’s time and taxpayers money.
Most lawyers don’t want to spend their time defending the indefensible. They would rather get the matter dealt with and move on. Because the next case might be one where someone really needs them, one where they can make a real difference. The next case might be one where an upstanding, law abiding, member of the general public finds themselves, to put it mildly, in a spot of bother.
Initially I was surprised that we haven’t heard more from this group, those who have “legitimately”, for want of a better word, benefited from legal aid lawyers in the past. The falsely accused, the victims of police and CPS blunders. I thought that they might all rally to the Save UK Justice campaign battle cry. All over the papers shouting about how if it hadn’t been for this barrister or that solicitor and our current legal aid system they would have a criminal record and be languishing in prison. But they have been silent. Maybe (like the majority of the public) they are unaware of what is going on. My husband proffered another explanation: they just don’t want to talk about it.
If you had been charged with something horrible, something that you hadn’t done, possibly spent time in prison awaiting trial, gone to court and (eventually) been found not guilty and walked free, would you want to speak publicly about it? After you’d been stuck in a nightmare for maybe a couple of years, perhaps lost your job, your partner, access to your kids, would you really want to go to the press and have it all raked up again? Some do, but they are few. Some defendants don’t even tell their families whilst it is going on, or after it is finished. Most just want to try and rebuild their lives, try and forget it ever happened. In any case, the press lose interest when people are found not guilty. Once the drama and scandal is over they go in search of the next big thing.
The untold stories
Over the next few posts I’m going to tell you the stories of some of the clients that fit into this category. The people that we hear so little about that the public don’t even realise they exist. These people who could be any one of us. The ones who, under the proposed system, would probably be advised to plead guilty.