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It's who you know ...

by Helen Johnson
19 October 2015

Solicitor Advocate of the Year 2015, Helen Johnson, explains below how the Ministry of Justice’s proposals for restricting in-house advocates ignores a vital benefit that advocates can offer clients - continuity of representation.

A few months ago, I attended a conference about representing vulnerable defendants in the criminal justice system. There were a number of presentations by professionals, academics and intermediaries. The session that had the biggest impact, in my opinion, was attended by five young people who had personal experience of the criminal justice system as defendants.

These young people were now in their early 20s, but in their younger years they had come into conflict with the law. Their offences varied, but all of them had at some time or another found themselves before the crown court and had served custodial sentences.

They described how they had found the crown court to be an unfamiliar and incomprehensible place. One said: ‘It wasn’t so bad when I was at the magistrates court, because I knew my solicitor’, but once they got to the crown court they were represented by an unfamiliar advocate. An advocate who didn’t know them or understand their background and life experiences. An advocate who had little idea how to speak to them or explain what was going on.

One of the young people confessed he had not understood the trial process at all. As a result, he had, in his words, ‘convicted himself’ because his lack of understanding had made him withdraw into himself and he had presented himself to the jury as an angry and hostile young man.

Another described how he didn’t know what was happening in court. It wasn’t until his barrister saw him afterwards that he realised he had received a seven-year custodial sentence. He was told he should be relieved: the barrister expected him to receive an indeterminate sentence.

I had spoken earlier at the conference about how I had represented a 17-year-old boy diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, who had been charged with terrorism offences. I explained that I had represented him from the point of the first phone call through to the end of his re-trial. I spoke about how I, together with leading counsel, an unusually client-centred QC, had arranged for our client to ‘practice’ giving evidence. The court had allowed us to use the breaks to get our client out of the dock and into the witness box to familiarise himself with it prior to his examination-in-chief and cross-examination.

The young people at the conference remarked upon this. How they wished they could have been afforded that opportunity, and how their own experiences of the crown court rendered such an event extremely unlikely.

For me, hearing from those young defendants, now articulate and reformed adults with purposeful futures, wasn’t just informative. It reinforced my firm belief that solicitor advocates have an important role to play in the crown court and can be a huge benefit to clients, in that we can provide continuity of representation .  Any client with trust, mental health or anxiety issues, or autistic characteristics even, will especially benefit from continuity of representation.

Solicitors specialising in criminal advocacy learn early on how to get the best out of a client and to create a rapport, and what to do when things go wrong. Clients come and go, but many come back. We treat every client on that basis. Even if the client does not return, if we’ve done a good job for them then they may recommend us to someone else.

It goes without saying that solicitors who appear before the crown court must be competent advocates. There seems to be a complete lack of any evidence that they are less competent than their counterparts at the Bar. The young people at that conference had no comment to make on the quality of their barrister’s advocacy. They were too confused and disconnected from the experience to be able to judge whether the person representing them was doing a good job. Yes, the standard of advocacy is important - but so is the manner of representation.

The Ministry of Justice is currently consulting on restricting firms from instructing in-house advocates. The positive aspects of clients being represented by someone they know and trust appears to been overlooked. I would urge Advocacy Section members to respond to the consultation. 


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