Most criminal defence solicitors will have by now come to accept that the government is not their friend, and indeed no friend in general of the criminal justice system. Years of underfunding courts, prisons and legal aid have brought the system to the brink of collapse, a collapse that the Covid-19 pandemic has done much to accelerate (although the collapse was very much in train before the pandemic hit, and let no one fool you into thinking otherwise).
Cases are now taking longer and longer to resolve, with suspects spending in some cases that I have dealt with personally 2 years waiting for the police and Crown Prosecution Service to decide whether or not criminal charges should be brought following an initial arrest. The system is equally as dysfunctional if a suspect is charged, with unconvicted (and, therefore, legally innocent) defendants languishing in custody for longer and longer periods while waiting for their trials, and some Crown Court trials for defendants on bail being listed as far ahead as 2022. Yes, you read that right.
The government’s response to the visible and entirely foreseeable crisis in the criminal justice system has been derisory. Rather than pump more resources into the system to enable it to deal with more cases expeditiously, the government has simply increased the amount of time that an unconvicted defendant can spend in custody awaiting trial without the Crown having to apply to a judge to extend the period of detention from 182 days to 238 days. A clear admission of failure.
The system is kept running by the hard work and dedication of solicitors and barristers who, despite ever decreasing rates of pay and an ever increasing workload, still strive to ensure that the human beings under their care are dealt with fairly and according to the law. It is my honest belief that you will nowhere find professionals more dedicated than those working in criminal defence, and this cannot be said enough. This is why I was so angered to read Boris Johnson’s comment in his speech to the Conservative Party conference recently in which he said his government would stop the criminal justice system from being “hamstrung by what the home secretary would doubtless, and rightly, call the lefty human rights lawyers and other do-gooders”.
This is the moment at which the government ceased being simply unfriendly towards my profession, and became actively hostile. Labelling my colleagues and I as “lefty-human rights lawyers” was doubtless intended as a sneer to inflame the synapses of the less sentient elements of Mr Johnson’s base, but the fact is that my colleagues and I proudly adopt that label as a badge of honour, and far from “hamstringing” the system as Mr Johnson fatuously suggests, we ensure that it continues to function even in the face of a government that seems indifferent to the prospect that it will, if current state of affairs persists, collapse altogether.
It is worth looking in a little more detail at what us do-gooding, lefty lawyers actually do in order to ensure that the system works properly (and this is by no means an exhaustive list):
- We will apply to dismiss evidentially weak cases, which reduces the amount of cases in the system and makes room for other cases to progress.
- We will advise defendants on the strength of the evidence and advise those who are guilty to plead guilty at an early stage in the case. This again reduces the amount of cases in the system and reduces the stress and anxiety caused to victims and witnesses who are worried about having to attend court to give evidence.
- If a defendant is not guilty we will make sure that their case is properly prepared for trial to avoid the need for trials being adjourned. A huge part of this is advising a defendant on what witnesses need to be called to give evidence and which witness statements can be read to the court as agreed evidence. This reduces the overall length of time it takes a case to conclude and ensures that a complainant or witness does not have to attend court to give evidence unless it is absolutely necessary for them to do so. Proper trial preparation also ensures that defendants (such as those of Mr Johnson’s colleagues in Parliament who have come before the criminal courts) have fair trials, which in turn ensures that the public have confidence in the system.
- If a defendant is guilty and pleads guilty we will make sure that all relevant information about them is placed before the sentencing court to ensure that the correct sentence is passed. This could be as simple a task as presenting character references to the court in order to present as fully rounded a picture of the defendant as possible, to more complex tasks such as presenting detailed medical and psychiatric evidence to the court to ensure that the defendant’s level of culpability for the offence in question is correctly assessed. This work ensures that the punishment fits the crime and ensures that courts do not pass sentences that are either excessive or wrong in principle.
In short, Mr Johnson, the system needs us do-gooding lefty lawyers. Without us it would genuinely be hamstrung. You would do well to remember that.
If you or someone you know is facing investigation or prosecution for a criminal offence and you want advice from experienced and expert Criminal Defence solicitors on how to achieve the best possible outcome, call Hodge Jones & Allen on 0808 252 5231 during office hours or 0808 274 8226 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.