There are a number of questions I get asked repeatedly, as a Criminal Defence Solicitor says Andy Kerrigan, Head of the Criminal Department at QS Burton & Co and the top 5 would be:
1. Who are you and where is my real lawyer?
When I started out this phrase was the first thing I heard every morning for about a year. The truth is many clients build up a relationship of trust with their Solicitor, who will often have represented them over the course of many years.
There are also situations where someone with no previous convictions has a long running and involved case, the outcome of which is important to that person and who has only really been dealing with one specific Solicitor. However there are times when lawyers cannot be in two places at once and we need to ask a colleague to cover a case.
When you start out, you are building your own client base and continuing to learn. You can expect to hear this question being asked on repeat.
2. What sentence am I going to get?
This is the question at the forefront of most client’s minds. What is the sentence I am going to get? It takes time to answer this question with confidence. Experience is key. The truth is when you walk into a Court you can have an idea of what sentence the Court can impose but you can never know for certain and sometimes you can be very wrong-footed by a very lenient or very harsh sentence.
Although we can’t give any guarantees, you always need to know your sentence guidelines to give the client the best, most informed and honest answer you can.
3. Will I get bail?
If you have been kept in custody by the Police sometimes for 48 hours or more and then brought to the Court the main thing on your mind is whether you are going to be released.
Some of the main reasons the Police keep someone in custody are: Lack of known address, risk of immediate reoffending, previous offending history and possibly for the persons own safety.
When you get to Court the test as to whether to keep someone in custody often changes. The Court has more powers than the Police to impose conditions most notably electronic monitored curfew which is not available to the Police.
When we get to Court we get a file of papers including the full previous record. The prosecutor will also indicate whether they agree or oppose bail and will negotiate bail conditions.
In a position where bail is strongly opposed you need to produce some of your best advocacy under pressure of time and pressure of your client’s expectation to secure bail. It is sometimes the earliest opportunity to gain trust with your client showing that you will fight for them and also requires imaginative use of bail conditions to satisfy the Court that the client will comply with bail.
4. I can’t decide what to do. What would you do if you were me?
The simple answer to that question is “I’m not you so I can’t answer the question”. There is a fine line to be walked now when advising clients. We are now obliged to tell our client that they will receive a discount if they enter a guilty plea at an earlier opportunity.
Because we are often having these conversations in the Court shortly before a hearing the client will have many things on their mind. It can be confusing when your lawyer then tells you about the discount for a guilty plea. Especially when they tell you that the evidence in the case is strong. Does that mean even though you didn’t do the offence you should just plead guilty anyway?
The answer is if you haven’t done the crime no matter what we have to say about discounts and the strength of the evidence you must enter a not guilty. Just because the evidence is strong on paper does not mean it will be strong in trial. There is increasing pressure from the Ministry of Justice, the Judiciary and the funding system to get people to enter guilty pleas. It is our job to stand between this pressure and our client where they maintain their innocence.
5. Will my name and address get in the paper?
Yes your name will get in the paper and no there is nothing I can do about it. The local press rarely send anyone to court but they do have access to court records and can print lists of cases from that record. They even print in our local paper a warning not to ask for details to be retracted. The Courts are open to the public and therefore the press is perfectly entitled to report.
The press is business and need to sell papers and as a consequence it is often the more sensational cases that get reported in detail. My concern is for people with mental health problems who find their name, story and picture in the paper. Where there is medical evidence of a mental illness should the same protections that are available to children apply? Should the level of protection to prevent identification of children be extended? Is it fair to expose vulnerable people in the press? Why does the press not report on cases where not guilty verdicts are returned? Is the press reporting of the courts balanced? Should it be balanced? There is also a debate about whether the details of people arrested but charged should be named in the press? There is also increasingly a move towards permitting courts to be televised.
I think this is a topic I will return to in my next blog.