In response to Standing up for justice and diversity earlier this year, Heretic TOC received a comment containing a request for some advice about UK lawyers for “people in our situation” if they face prosecution “for their heretic views”. In response, I wrote:
Officially, no one is prosecuted for their views alone in the UK. Having been on the wrong end of several ideologically motivated prosecutions, though, I have no dispute with the inquirer’s way of putting it. Without getting too bogged down, it is obvious that being Kind, or simply expressing radical views, can lead to all sorts of trouble, in employment, etc. Often there will be a need for a good lawyer, where there is a prosecution or not.
This is an important matter to which I have been giving quite a bit of thought in recent months, not least after a friend suggested setting up a database of sympathetic lawyers.
The legal world is in turmoil at the moment, thanks largely to a squeeze on Legal Aid and reforms by former Justice Secretary Chris Grayling that are now being rapidly undone by his successor Michael Gove. We will need to see how things pan out in the coming months because, sadly, there are good lawyers out there who may not last very long.
I was asked if I would blog on the subject. It’s a tough one. I could name a number of good lawyers but they might not be right for everyone, depending on the case, the location and so on. Partly it is a matter of the turmoil described above, but there is also a major misconception to deal with.
Be warned, what I am about to say is very counter-intuitive and hence hard to believe. People facing criminal charges for alleged sex offences think they need a sympathetic lawyer, but it ain’t necessarily so. Yes, you need someone you can get on with and who is not rude or overtly hostile. But you don’t need someone who agrees with your view of sexuality. And if you wait for one of those to come along you could be in for a long wait.
I talked about this to a solicitor I have known for decades. He gave the example of republicans in Northern Ireland before the peace agreement. Very often, he said, when they were in trouble for suspected terrorism, they were most effectively represented in the courts by lawyers who were not fellow republicans who wanted to see a united Ireland but “loyalists”, i.e. those loyal to the British Crown and state. In other words they did well when they chose their lawyers from the enemy side! So sympathy is neither necessary nor sufficient for good representation even if it makes us feel better at the time.
That said, a database of lawyers who have put in a good performance as judged by Kind clients would undoubtedly be helpful, and I expect to be in discussions about this in the coming year with interested parties. But there is no reason why a start should not be made right now. Accordingly, Heretic TOC would be hugely interested in hearing from anyone with a story to tell about their experiences, good or bad, with lawyers. Instead of posting in the Comments section you can email me here: firstname.lastname@example.org
In the meantime, if you find yourself in trouble for a suspected criminal offence the first lawyer you see will almost inevitably be a duty solicitor at a police station following your arrest. But make sure you ask to see a solicitor: the police sometimes “forget” to tell you that you have the right to free legal advice if you are questioned at a police station. You don’t need to pay anything in the UK as Legal Aid is automatic at this initial point in the proceedings.
Unless you already have alternative legal representation lined up, the duty solicitor will be the person who takes your case through its first stage, including your extremely important initial interview with police, when your solicitor may well advise you to say nothing at all except “No comment” in response to each question. This may seem uncooperative and go against your natural inclination to give an innocent explanation of your conduct, but it is a very sound tactic which saves countless clients from opening their mouth and putting their foot in it.
Provided you manage to get out on police bail you will then be able to ponder whether the duty solicitor’s firm is the best one to stick with, either via Legal Aid or going private. If it is your first time in trouble, you probably won’t be in a position to judge the quality of the legal advice you are given, but that doesn’t mean you just have to leave everything to the lawyers and hope for the best.
Right from the outset, in the police station, there will be indicators of whether you are getting a proper service, and you will be able to assess these for yourself. As indicated above, don’t look for sympathy towards your views. Rather, what you should be getting at this stage is a calm, unrushed, private talk with the solicitor ahead of any police interview. This is your opportunity to put your legal advisor fully in the picture. Until they know all the relevant available facts they will not be best placed to give you good advice. In the course of outlining your account, the attentive lawyer will be taking notes and asking you to clarify points where necessary.
Probably in a state of shock after a dawn raid on your home and several hours in a police cell, you may well be too shattered to ask your lawyer many questions just yet. If you do, though, you will quickly get an impression as to whether they are answered carefully, clearly and patiently. When finally you are bailed and hit the fresh air of the street there will be mixed emotions: relief to be at liberty again along with dread over what is to come. After that, when you get home, there may well be a period of emotional overload and mental paralysis when you simply cannot think straight.
But then the questions will start to crowd in. You will need to talk to your lawyer. At this point, indeed as soon as you can bring yourself to do it, you should make a detailed note of everything you can remember your lawyer telling you. Inevitably, there will be things you didn’t fully grasp or key “what comes next” points you are foggy about. So you should make a list of your questions and phone your solicitor to arrange an appointment for discussing them, if one has not been already arranged. You will soon find how easy or difficult it is to communicate with the firm from home: Do they answer the phone or emails promptly? Do they put you through to your solicitor or are they perpetually in court or speaking to another client? Do messages left with a secretary actually get dealt with by the boss in a reasonable time?
Under the financially pinched Legal Aid system in the UK these days, publically funded defence lawyers cannot make a living unless they have a rapid turnover of cases, with not a lot of time given to each one. So there is always a danger of being given “the bum’s rush”. It does not necessarily mean the lawyer is not a good lawyer or that they do not care. But it may do. So you will usually be better off going private if you can afford it.
Also, you will have to consider your eligibility for Legal Aid. For guidance on who qualifies see here. There is also a calculator so you can work out the financial side of your eligibility based on your own personal means.
If you apply for Legal Aid there will generally be a short period of at least a few days, and possibly two or three weeks, before you sign the application form, because the application must include a declaration of your financial means, and time must be allowed for you to come up with the details. Do not wait passively. This is a window of opportunity for you. If you are already getting vibes that the duty solicitor isn’t up to much, or is not right for your case, this is your chance to look into alternatives. Once Legal Aid is granted you will not be allowed to change to another solicitor on a legally aided basis unless the circumstances are very exceptional, so speed is of the essence.
If someone personally recommends another solicitor, by all means consider the suggestion seriously, but do bear in mind it’s a matter of horses for courses: the guy who did a brilliant job on your mate’s divorce settlement is unlikely to have relevant experience in the criminal courts.
Fortunately, a more systematic way of finding the right kind of recommended lawyer is nowadays available through free online sources. You could do worse than checking out the major reference guides. Try Legal 500 or Chambers or both. The choice will often be large and somewhat bewildering, but if you stick to firms listed in these sources, and also named individual solicitors and barristers, you can be reasonably sure of getting advice that is sound in law and based on an experienced understanding of how the courts work in practice.
In Legal 500 (Chambers is quite similar), firms are ranked according to location and practice area; leading individuals in each field are also listed. Every firm ranked – and every individual mentioned – in The Legal 500 UK is “recommended”. This does not mean they are handing out recommendations indiscriminately, regardless of quality: only a small selection of firms and practising lawyers get any sort of mention.
After reaching the Legal 500 link given above, what you need to do is first select the region where you live in the UK – or in other countries, because coverage is global – then in the “Editorial” column you choose the relevant specialism, “Crime, fraud and licensing”, and then the sub-menu “Crime: general”. Unfortunately, you probably will not find much specific reference to firms or individual solicitors specialising in sex cases, although this varies a bit from region to region. And the merits of individual solicitors tend to be touted in rather bland terms such as “well respected”, “top-notch” and “excellent”, which do not offer much scope for choosing between them. On the other hand, the guide does specify which firms and individuals are considered best, in rank order.
What you are looking for in a solicitor, though, is not a specialist. You just want someone who is conscientiously attentive to your case, as shown by listening to you carefully, explaining things clearly and getting all sorts of stuff done in good time at each stage of the proceedings. One of these tasks, if your case goes to the Crown Court, will be to advise on who will be your advocate in court. These days, it may be the solicitor him or herself, if they are qualified as a Solicitor Advocate. But often a barrister will be the best choice. Legal 500 (and Chambers) has plenty of information on barristers, giving you an opportunity to check out the one recommended by your solicitor and probe whether one or two others with an impressive-looking track record might be better. Above all, discuss the options: make your solicitor say why their own choice is best, and ask yourself whether they are just taking the easy option i.e. we are recommending Mr Bumpole because he’s the guy we always use, so we don’t have to spend time thinking about it.
In the crucial early days when you are still trying to find the right solicitor, though, choice of counsel will not yet even figure on your To Do list. I mention it just to give a fuller idea of what the listings guides have to offer. Also, while I am on the subject, I will take a particular barrister listed in Legal 500 to illustrate a key point about choosing lawyers in general. The point is this: while reputation is important, and you should think about going for the best, there is nothing automatic about the outcome. Even the most brilliant and persuasive lawyer in the land can come a cropper. That’s the bad news. But the good news – the very good news – is that even your ordinary, average, local law firm can often get good results, especially if you take an energetic interest in your own case. Look things up online after your solicitor has mentioned them, about such as information about your Defence Statement, the relevant Sentencing Guideline, etc., and make it clear, through polite but persistent questioning, especially by phone and email, that you expect them to be really on top of your case at all times. They won’t get you off if you are plainly guilty, but where there is a viable defence case they will be able to engage competent barristers capable of winning contested trials; and in the more usual case, where a guilty plea is advisable, they will be capable of very important damage limitation.
Now for that particular barrister in Legal 500: Orlando Pownall QC. A former Crime Silk of the Year, he is clearly a man right at the top of his profession, which is presumably why he was chosen to defend Premiership footballer Adam Johnson, for whom, one supposes, money would be no object. I discussed Johnson’s case recently, before he was sentenced, in ‘Paedophile’ soccer star did fuck all. I said his “crime” was trivial and that despite a great clamour for a draconian sentence, Pownall’s cleverly “feminist” defence strategy might just find favour with the judge.
It did not. Poor Johnson was hammered with a six-year sentence.
Was the bad result Pownall’s fault? Hard to assess without knowing all the details, but I’d say not. It was just one of those high-profile cases in which a weak judge succumbed to the court of public opinion, or rather its most hysterically screeching elements. But, hey, the case has now gone to appeal, so there may yet be a slightly less unhappy ending.
NOW FOR SOME SERIOUSLY DODGY SOLICITORS…
Justice Lowell Goddard’s Everlasting Story, otherwise described in the Guardian as her “independent inquiry into institutional failures to protect children over many decades in England and Wales”, finally got under way last month. We are told this threatens to be a series of no less than 25 investigations, leaving every possibility they will not all be finished 25 years from now at a cost of surely more than £25 million and possibly more than ten times that amount if the cost of at least one other long inquiry is anything to go by.
First up is a probe focusing on the late Greville Janner, who featured in Heretic TOC’s V.I.P. fiasco: you heard it here first. The Guardian piece says solicitor Liz Dux, at Slater and Gordon Lawyers, will be representing nine complainants against Janner.
But will she? Dux is a familiar figure in the media, and multinational law firm Slater and Gordon has long been a major go-to outfit for compo-hunting “abuse victims”. Not necessarily for much longer. If Anna Raccoon is right, the firm is in deep financial trouble and may soon collapse. Who knows, they might even end up being sued by their own clients for leaving them in the lurch!
AND SOME SERIOUSLY DODGY CLAIMS…
Remember “Darren”? The nutter who claimed my late friend Peter Righton was a brutal murderer? He has finally ’fessed up to lying about that, saying he was he was “coerced and manipulated” into making claims that were then “hyped up and exaggerated” by the notorious Exaro news agency. The full Sunday Times story last month, coming just days after the disastrous Operation Midland was wound up, is behind a pay wall; but its author, reporter James Gillespie, kindly emailed me the full text. Coming after the collapse of Operation Midland, which had been “based” on the utterly baseless allegations of “Nick”, another Exaro lunatic, Darren’s confession would “raise further questions” wrote Gillespie, “about whether detectives and some sections of the media have been too ready to believe the claims of individuals who are clearly troubled.”
You can say that again James. And again and again. But will anybody be listening?