How the Ministry of Justice’s proposals for restricting in-house advocates ignores a vital benefit that advocates can offer clients – continuity of representation
Solicitor Advocate of the Year 2015, Helen Johnson of Emery Johnson Astills, explains 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. As you might expect there were a number of presentations by professionals and academics and intermediaries. The session that had the biggest impact was that by 5 young people who had personal experience of the criminal justice system as defendants.
These young people were now in their early twenties 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 all had served custodial sentences.
What they described was how they had found the Crown Court to be an unfamiliar and incomprehensible place. One of them 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, didn’t know their background or their life experiences. Didn’t know how to speak to them or explain to them what was going on.
One of them confessed he had not understood the trial process at all and 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 and it wasn’t until his barrister saw him afterwards that he realised he had received a 7 year custodial sentence which he was told was good because he had been expected to receive an indeterminate sentence.
I had spoken earlier in the day about how I had represented a 17 year old boy diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, 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, Queen’s Counsel, had arranged for our client to “practice” giving evidence. The court (the Old Bailey) 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 done that and how their own experiences of the Crown Court rendered such an event utterly unlikely.
For me, hearing from those young former 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. That they can be a huge benefit to clients who enjoy a continuity of representation. Solicitors who specialise in criminal advocacy learn early on how to get the best out of a client, how 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. They may come back and even if they don’t, if we do a good job for them, they may recommend us to someone else.
A client who has trust issues, or autistic characteristics, a client with mental health issues or anxiety all benefit from continuity of representation.
It goes without saying that Solicitors who appear before the Crown Court must be competent advocates. However, 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 to confused and disconnected form 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 consulting on restricting firms from instructing in house advocates. The positive aspects of clients being represented by someone they know and trust appears to have passed them by.
Helen Johnson is a Solicitor Advocate at Emery Johnson Astills.
She can be contacted at HLJ@johnsonastills.com