In a nutshell
Criminal solicitors represent defendants in cases brought before the UK’s criminal courts. Lesser offences are commonly dealt with exclusively by solicitors in the Magistrates’ Courts; more serious charges go to the Crown Courts, which are essentially still the domain of barristers. Everyday crime is the staple for most solicitors – theft, assault, drugs and driving offences.
Fraud is the preserve of a more limited number of firms, and the cases require a different approach from, say, crimes of violence. Criminal practice is busy, often frantic, with a hectic schedule of visits to police stations, prisons and courts meaning plenty of face-to-face client contact and advocacy. The area is also known for having the lowest pay in the legal profession.
What lawyers do
- Attend police stations to interview and advise people in police custody.
- Visit prisons to see clients on remand.
- Prepare the client’s defence using medical and social workers’ reports.
- Liaise with witnesses, probation officers, the CPS and others.
- Attend conferences with counsel (ie barristers).
- Represent defendants at trial or brief barristers to do so.
- Represent clients at sentencing hearings, explaining any mitigating facts or circumstances.
- Fraud solicitors need a head for business as they deal with a considerable volume of paperwork and financial analysis.
Realities of the job
- The hours are long and can be disruptive to your personal life. Lawyers who are accredited to work as duty solicitors will be on a rota and can be called to a police station at any time of the day or night.
- Confidence in dealing with the characters you are likely meet (your clients, law officers, and your fellow lawyers) is essential.
- If you choose to enter into general crime, you’ll have a large caseload with a fast turnaround, meaning plenty of advocacy.
- The work is driven by the procedural rules and timetable of the court.
- Your efforts can mean the difference between a person’s liberty or incarceration. You have to be detail-conscious and constantly vigilant.
- You’ll encounter horrible situations and difficult or distressed people. As well as victims, you will deal with defendants accused of murder, rape, drug dealing, fraud and paedophilia – if you have the ability to look beyond the labels, recognise any given individual's right to representation, and see them as clients deserving of your best efforts, then you’ve picked the right job. It can be disheartening to see clients repeat the same poor choices and return to court again and again.
- The public funding of criminal defence through legal aid means that the sector comes with more than its fair share of bureaucracy. It also means you’ll earn very little, especially in your first few years of practice.
- Trainees in fraud find the early years provide minimal advocacy and masses of trawling through warehouses full of documents. Caseloads are usually of the smaller variety, but cases can run for years.
- Violent crime has risen year on year since 2014, according to the Office for National Statistics, with 1.3 million violent crimes being recorded in 2017. The press has dined out on new forms of crime, from moped-mounted robberies, to acid attacks and the tragic effects of the synthetic marijuana alternative, spice. There's been a depressingly familiar spate of stabbings in London too. All this has provided grist to the mill of the government's critics: for them, the simultaneous cuts to policing are taking their toll. Home Office statistics show that officer numbers fell by more than 20,000 between 2010 and 2017. Alternatively, some of the rise in reported violent crime can be put down to improved police recording practices, particularly when it comes to sex offences. In London some, including Sadiq Khan, have pointed the finger at middle class cocaine users for contributing to the rise in violent crime.
- The UK's criminal justice system has taken a battering recently. Chief of all its woes are swingeing cuts to legal aid. The barristers tasked with defending those who can't afford their own legal defence have taken pay cut after pay cut. This even caused barristers to call for strike action in April 2018 in response to the cuts, with lawyers threatening to refuse legal aid work. The right to representation may be fundamental to the British legal system, but the barristers' rewards for fighting the good fight aren't that extravagant.
- On the solicitor side, things look equally troubling. The Law Society made the exceedingly glum forecast that criminal defence solicitors could be extinct in five years because the low pay lacks appeal to junior lawyers. However, the government's planned cuts havn't all taken effect. Justice secretary David Gauke had hoped to introduce a 40% cut in fees for criminal defence solicitors handling complex evidence, but that was ruled to be both unfair and unlawful by High Court Judges in August 2018. But the damage already inflicted upon the sector has had tangible consequences. Many firms that previously excelled in crime are either moving out of the area entirely or no longer accept publicly funded clients, while others are shifting their focus from high-street criminal cases to fraud, commercial or private client work.
- The wheels of justice have also been slowed by the police and prosecutors' approach to disclosure. Evidence which may help the defence of the accused must be disclosed, but police and prosecutors dialled in on building a case seem to be neglecting to do so. When evidence comes to light which hasn't been disclosed at the appropriate time, it can mean the case collapses. According to the BBC, since 2014-15, there was a 70% increase in the amount of prosecutions which collapsed due to a failure to disclose evidence by the police or prosecutors.
- The criminal investigation into the Grenfell Tower tragedy is ongoing. Charges of corporate manslaughter, gross negligence manslaughter and breaches of the Health and Safety Act are all being considered, with both the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation under investigation. The London Fire Brigade's 'stay put' policy is also being looked at, to see if it breached health and safety law.
- One case that kicked up a bit of a media storm during 2018 concerned the Parole Board's decision to release John Worboys, the so-called 'black cab rapist.' This decision resulted in a huge amount of scrutiny on the Justice Secretary, a legal challenge by Worboys' victims, and the eventual forced resignation of Nick Hardwick, the chair of the Parole Board.
- Considering Brexit, one of the main concerns is the future of European bodies like Europol. If the UK keeps free movement, multi-state policing will be crucial. However, depending on the deal that is struck, the UK may have little input as to how these organisations are run.
- Check out www.clsa.co.uk for other news and discussion on major developments in criminal practice.
- If crime is your passion (and even if it's not) we'd strongly recommend that you go and watch a trial in progress. The Old Bailey's probably the most exciting, and you can just turn up on the day.