"Some days, it’s by the skin of our teeth"
When I was 13, I watched a whole trial unfold during work experience at Portsmouth Crown Court – a classic self-defence trial which came down to that amazing, human element of “who do I believe in this situation?”. It was the most dramatic, exciting place that I could imagine – I was hooked.
Seeing an innocent client take that breath of relief as he came out of the cells for the first time gave me the fire in my belly to fight for vulnerable people. I love cases where we've gone above and beyond, and it's made a difference. Often, these people have no one else.
We fought with the council to get one vulnerable client housing, even though that’s not usually our role as criminal lawyers. She was 19 and homeless, and spent four weeks in prison waiting for trial on a minor charge because the council didn’t find her anywhere to stay. Eventually, the charges were dropped anyway – if we hadn’t stepped in, I hate to think where she’d be now.
But one of the biggest challenges for me is the disrespect we get – and, to be clear, I don’t mean from clients. Defence lawyers are often made to feel like we’re outside the justice system. It can come down to basic, little things which sound stupid, but add up. We're not allowed to park in most court car parks – but prosecution lawyers are. We can’t use the wifi in certain police stations, and sometimes we don’t have access to appropriate meeting spaces so we end up meeting clients in stairwells. It grinds you down.
We're also often seen as synonymous with the defendant. Court staff don’t let us into courtrooms on our own, but will grant access to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) lawyers. It's like they think we’re a bit dodgy or might nick the stuff in there! I'm an officer of the court, just like any other lawyer. It's a hard and important job , so it’s soul-destroying when you're made to feel the opposite.
On top of that, the police station can be a really lonely place, especially late at night if you're stuck with a difficult decision or a difficult person. I'm always on call for my colleagues and the clients that ask for me, even when I’m not on the rota. It's just part of what we do. Luckily my family understand and I've always talked with my children about what mummy does and why it's important – but it never ends, 365 days a year.
Now I'm an employer, I insist my staff take a break. Because there’s so few of us left, we're on duty more and more, back-to-back. We don't have the built-in protections of shift work like the police do. We’ll be on duty for 24 hours and still expected to go to court the next day. I can't have people do 36 or 48 hours on duty, but that’s how the rotas come out – it’s brutal. Trying to juggle schedules or find agents to cover the gaps just keeps getting tougher.
Criminal defence is coming to be seen as almost ‘not for profit’. You have to really want to make it work, but many firms aren’t willing or able to support a loss-leading department. As a result, in the last five years, duty solicitor numbers in my area of Hampshire have massively dropped, by almost a third.
No one in their 20s is doing defence anymore and we’ve seen loads of people in their 30s and 40s moving into prosecution – particularly women around my age who want, say, better maternity deals – because the CPS can offer much better pay and job security.
And within a firm, it can be hard being the poor relation at the table. The crime department can’t earn fees in the same way as others, and this will always hamper us. It’s difficult trying to spin so many plates and make criminal legal aid profitable without cutting corners, so we've had to be creative to develop our private side as much as possible. Overall, though, I'm lucky my firm is very committed to access to justice.
Some days, we get through by the skin of our teeth. Heads are down and morale is low. Last Easter weekend, I spent hours on the phone trying to find someone to cover a case I couldn’t pick up. I rang everybody but there are just not enough people left. If there’s nobody to sit in the interview, it's inadmissible because that suspect hasn't had their right to legal advice.
In the end I found somebody, but – as I said to the police – that's this time. Roll on two more years, there’ll be even fewer people on duty, then what will they do? The police have no idea.
We don’t want to leave people in a police cell without legal advice, but there are no longer enough of us to cover this work and ensure justice for those in the criminal justice system. There are more and more police officers arresting more and more people, the CPS has seen a huge recruitment drive – we are completely outnumbered and the inevitable consequence will be wide-scale miscarriages of justice.
Support our campaign to protect legal aid
The number of duty solicitors registered on schemes in Hampshire, where Chloe works, has plummeted by 29% since 2017 – we forecast another 22% drop by 2027.
We're taking the fight for fair funding to the High Court in a judicial review in December 2023.