Believe the Fat Cat Lawyer spin if you want, but this is the alternative version of why Criminal lawyers are fighting for Legal Aid
Yesterday I threatened to handcuff myself to a bench in the Magistrates Court until my case was dealt with. Its the second time in the last few months that I have done so. It sounds dramatic, but drastic times call for drastic measures. I actually meant it, and I assume on both occasions I have given the impression that I meant it as the court then found a way to deal with my case!
The courts, Crown Prosecution Service, Police, Probation and defence are all at breaking point, but that does not justify the attitude that I am seeing all too much these days. The ‘well that’s the way it is’ attitude when I complain about the fact that a client who is a youth has been in custody for 5 months and the CPS still haven’t prepared the charges, or a client with mental health issues (who the court insisted entered a plea on the first occasion) has had his trial adjourned three times, or a young mother (at risk of losing her children, job and home if she goes to prison) has attended court five times waiting for papers on her case only to find that the police recommended that the case be discontinued four months ago.
Last night someone described me as a ‘bully lawyer’, that may be so, but I also like to think that I care. I appreciate the “well that’s just the way it is” damage that is done to my clients and their families with the constant delays. I appreciate how it feels to be treated by the criminal justice system as though you don’t exist, whether you are a defendant, witness or victim.
When the legal aid cuts were first mooted, I wrote a piece about the fact I felt very uncomfortable with striking as I did not want to leave a client facing court without representation. However, I have changed my mind. The damage I imagined would be done by the Ministry of Justice legal aid cuts is actually much worse. The latest announcement of another 8.75% cuts to legal aid rates, giving firms only 3 weeks notice of the cuts, will mean that if the criminal legal profession does not act now, there will be no criminal legal profession in 4 years time, and then every defendant who cannot afford a private lawyer will be facing court without representation.
Obviously the Government spin goes into overdrive as soon as any legal aid cuts are mentioned. The latest cuts announcement was accompanied by media reports about hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers money being spent on trials, with the articles cleverly worded to make it seem as though that was all defence fees, when in fact it was the whole trial cost, so included the Prosecution costs, jury costs, court costs and defence fees. But that wouldn’t make such a good defence lawyer bashing headline so why ruin a good story with the truth.
If I had £1 for every time someone has said to me recently “well you will just have to find another type of law to practice” I could handsomely supplement the legal aid cuts. But the reality is that I don’t want to do anything else, and if all criminal lawyers take that advice, there will be no justice. It’s not just about justice for the defendant. What about the victims and witnesses who, if there are no criminal lawyers, will be questioned in court by the person that have accused of committing a crime. What about the jury who will have the very unenviable task of having to determine a person’s guilt or innocence based on the case run by the defendant, with all the confusions and emotions of the defendant thrown into the mix. What about the defendant with mental health problems or youth who are expected to be able to understand the case papers and chase the Crown Prosecution Service for the missing papers. Who is going to raise the valid legal arguments which may make or break a case?
The Ministry of Justice will have you believe that the wealthy defendants will still be represented by good lawyers as they will pay privately, and that all others can be picked up by the pro bono system. This is utter nonsense and just shows how out of touch the Ministry of Justice is with the current criminal justice system. All of the points I have raised above still apply.
*Does that mean that a victim of a violent assault and robbery has to hope the person charged with attacking them is wealthy as that way a lawyer will cross examine them in court. Perhaps we need to have stickers made for our clothing, ‘Please only assault and rob me if you are wealthy’!
*Jurors will have to hope that their defendant can afford a lawyer as that way they will only have to take the obligatory 2 weeks off of work for jury service, but if they are unlucky enough to get an indigent defendant case, they may be looking at four weeks off of work due to the extra time it takes for an unrepresented defendant to deliver his or her case.
*The recently qualified lawyer who works in Mergers and Acquisitions, who works 60 hours a week, and whose employer doesn’t allow them to turn their work phone off, and who has been given the case of a person with mental health difficulties as part of the pro bono package isn’t going to sit in an interview room in Hull with the client for hours trying to get instructions, while at the same time trying to stop them from self harming while sitting at the table. “Oh sorry love, I know you are going to try and cut yourself with that pen as soon as I leave the room, but I really need to take this call from Hong Kong.”
Yes, as defence lawyers we have a bad rep, we are known as Fat Cats, we often don’t help ourselves by appearing in public wearing wigs and gowns – thinking we are making ourselves identifiable, but in reality coming across as totally detached from normal life. But most of the lawyers I deal with day after day are not like that. I spend my time with the most vulnerable, disadvantaged, confused, and scared. I don’t walk around with designer handbags and spend my time at garden parties, but I do..
*answer my phone at 3am to a scared client and receive no money for it;
*work all night to try and ensure that the legal argument the judge has demanded is in front of him at 9am despite the fact I won’t get paid for that work as it is classed as part of case preparation;
*regularly interrupt a family dinner to take a call from a junior colleague in the police station asking advice about a client they are representing. That is a call I don’t get paid for;
*travel 10 hours round trip to visit a client in prison on remand. I get a low fixed fee for the prison visit so long as I can prove it was ‘essential’ (and the Legal Aid Authority puts a lot of hard work into trying to say that I made a 10 hour trip to sit in a tiny room with a client for the fun of it). But I don’t get paid for the 6 hours travel time or the 1 hour waiting to get into the prison. If the prison is out in The Sticks I have to get a taxi from the station, usually at a vastly inflated rate as the taxi firms know there is no other way to get to the prison, and I then have to wait months for my travel expenses (in excess of £100 per trip) to be paid back to me.
*get up at 4:30 and travel half way across the country to get to an obscure court for 9am, only to be told that the case is being adjourned because witnesses have not been warned for the trial. For that wasted day I will receive my travel expenses only;
*sit in a small room with some thoroughly unpleasant clients persuading them that they should plead guilty so that the young victim does not have to face the fear of coming to court;
*have to view nasty photos and watch hours of footage of crimes and witness accounts which would most definitely come with a warning if they were in a fictional film. I can’t talk about this to this anyone, and get no offer of help from the Ministry of Justice to deal with this;
*occasionally find I am on the receiving end of verbal abuse by victims and their families due to the fact I am representing a certain client. I never make a complaint about this, I just get on with the job;
*have to protect my family from repercussions from the media and public for some of the clients I represent. I never make a complaint about this, I just get on with the job.
I’m not special, I’m just a criminal lawyer, trying to keep this profession alive, to encourage the junior lawyers to stay in the criminal system. It is about justice, but with that does flow the fact that even criminal lawyers have to make enough to pay their rent, and if the Government’s current reductions mean that those lawyers won’t be able to pay their rent they will go elsewhere and find work that does pay their rent, which brings me back to the justice issue again..
My mum had high hopes for me as a lawyer, but it turns out, I only like the dirty gritty edgy stuff that brings me into contact with the worse crimes that you can imagine. The kid found in a suitcase in the canal, the torture of a gang member and anyone who just happened to be a member of their family, the tourist abducted from the beach during a night time stroll and buried alive. Yet I also see those who are accused of the crimes, the lives they have lived, and still live, and I also have at the forefront of my mind the fact that they might, just might, be innocent. I’m a defense lawyer trying to keep those charged with the most heinous crimes from Death Row.
Standing in a street which was the scene of a drive by shooting two days earlier, I count the number of bullet holes in the building opposite, and then notice that the cars in the neighboring yards are also riddled with bullet holes and that the 2 inch thick metal fence posts didn’t fare a lot better. Meanwhile cars with blackened windows cruise past very slowly, and I’m conscious that if the window rolls down and there is an automatic weapon on the other side, those holes aren’t just going to be in a fence post and house brick.
So why am I here? It’s a crime scene and my client is charged with murder, it’s as simple as that. I want to look at the crime scene, get a feel for it myself, speak to the neighbors – if any will speak to me – I’m a middle aged white woman in a predominantly black poor neighborhood. Some call it the ghetto, but its not, there are good, hard working decent people living here, they would like to move but are unable to, they are in hock to the bank for their houses and no one is going to buy a house from them with the added selling pitch of MP5 bullet holes. Instead they have to hope that their son coming home from school at 5pm isn’t the next innocent victim of gang turf wars that have spilled over to these streets in recent years.
I don’t have the back up that the cops have when they visit these areas, I don’t have a firearm, or a radio to call for back up. To advertise the fact that I’m not a cop, I often show a lot more flesh than I usually think appropriate for a defense lawyer at work, tight cropped jeans so that its clear I don’t have a firearm strapped to my legs, bare hips and small of my back, showing there is nothing concealed in my waistband, and a Public Defender tag around my neck. It’s as good as a sign on my head “Yes I know I’m way out of my depth on these streets but I’m not a cop or looking to buy drugs”. In reality my best asset is my English accent, its very rare for a person not to respond to me when I ask to speak to them.. there is always that curiosity, it might come in the form of “I love your accent, where are you from?” or “hey Bitch where you from, that ain’t no Hood accent”. To me it doesn’t matter so long as it gets people talking, as that what I’m there to do. Many of the people in these streets will have refused to speak to the police, or to provide statements, but they may be prepared to talk to me. A street of 20 houses, at least 10 of them hit by stray gunfire, and when the police attended, no one heard a thing, apparently they were all asleep. I can usually find at least one or two who were not quite so asleep after all, and then there is always the local gossip who may actually hold a fair amount of truth.
I take photos of the scene on my iPhone, locations and lighting, where cars would have likely been parked, lines of sight for the neighboring and opposite houses. I’m not a crime scene investigator, but I have a good eye for a crime scene and will pass all my information back to the defense investigators and tell them what I want them to look for, what reconstructions I want. If it was a night time shooting then I’m sorry but I need an investigator to go back at night time. A day time photo or an ariel shot from Google Earth isn’t going to cut it with me.
I will often go back with the investigators to show them what I want. In the past I’ve borrowed cars to carry out reconstructions using the exact same car the police were sitting in to show that they could not have seen what they say they saw from inside the vehicle. I’ve asked cops to interrupt their lunch to get down on their knees in the middle of the diner and pull a weapon to show me whether it can be done the way my client has said it happened, and I’ve visited snitches in jail to tell them that so long as they keep out of my client’s way they should be ok as I’ve told my client that if the snitch dies, they too are going to face the same grim reaper that they have tattooed on their arm!
I am sure many of you are thinking that this is the stuff of Hollywood and doesn’t happen in real life, and that’s right, many lawyers don’t do anything more than meet their client at court and speak to them occasionally on the phone. But that’s not me, I need to get into the mind of my client and their life, and because of this I have ensured that most of my clients don’t go to Death Row and with those who do I can say I have tried.
Next stop is the local liquor store as these are often the focal point for these neighborhoods. As I walk up to the liquor store with its blacked out windows I’m never quite sure what to expect inside, but it is the usual, the clerk and all the alcohol behind bulletproof glass, money passed through a small gap where the glass meets the counter, a big metal pull out tray under the counter where the alcohol is delivered after payment is made. The only stuff on show are a few cans of coke in a side fridge. I grab a coke and join the queue, which parts for me to go to the front. I’m not from round here, they want to know why I’m there and possibly get me out as soon as possible. My problem is that I don’t want to go first, I want to talk to the clerk when he’s on his own. As soon as I walked into this store I realized that my client wouldn’t have walked into this store to jack it, the bullet proof glass, with American Rifle Association stickers all over it, gave it away that it’s not quite an easy target, so the other option is that he or those with him, were in here to buy a firearm. I explain to the clerk who I am and tell him that I am confused as to why my client went into the store that evening as surveillance footage shows that he didn’t exit with any liquor, was it perhaps that they card everyone, and my client didn’t have ID? The clerk completely ignores me.. oh well that’s a bust then. Two guys behind me snigger as though they can’t believe I am naïve enough to think that this liquor store cards all its customers. As I walk past them I mutter “or is it that he wanted something else that went in his waistband?”
By the time I exit the liquor store there are kids circling on bikes “hey lady, you been asking questions in my neighborhood?” It’s amazing how a 12 year old kid can create such an intimidating atmosphere, but my clients over the years have taught me ….don’t back down, don’t show a sign of weakness, you might still get shot or beaten but its less likely ..jeez thanks. So I don’t back down I walk up to the kids, I hand them all one of my cards, and they let me walk off. As I drive out of the parking lot, one of them circles up to my car, and gives me a name…it might come to nothing or it might be the breakthrough in my case. My client’s life might actually be saved by a 12 year old riding a bike!