Friday, 31 May 2013

Stockholm Syndrome

Sometimes I get little theories in my head; this is one of them.

For those of you who haven’t heard of it (there maybe somebody), Stockholm Syndrome is the phenomenon whereby captives form an attachment to their captors.  The phrase first appeared following the Norrmalmstorg robbery when bank employees were held hostage and later refused help from the authorities and defended their captors in public.

Those of us to work with suspects and defendants often see a fledging state of Stockholm Syndrome taking hold of some of our clients.  It usually happens with clients who are new, or relatively new, to the system and particularly among those who would not normally expect to be involved with the Criminal Justice System.

I recall one client who was accused of a number of very serious sexual offences.  I have no doubt that he was innocent and, after hearing evidence from his accusers and from him the jury rejected the evidence against him completely.  He was held by the police for a number of weeks because he became ill in custody and so was under police guard at hospital until he was fit to return to the police station.  Afterwards he was put in prison to await trial.  He was terrified by everything.  The thing I remember about him most was that he was really upset that the police thought he was a rapist and a paedophile.  He wanted them to like him.  He was desperate to be liked by the people who had power and control over him.  They hated him.

In more normal police station cases (the sort that last less than 24-hours) you see certain types of client who will take your advice, usually to answer no comment, but then ask “how will the police react?”  They genuinely feel the need not to upset the officers.  I don’t think this is fear that they’ll be beaten up or kept locked up any longer than necessary.

As well as my other work, I run a drink drivingsolicitors firm in London.  Something that surprised me when I moved into that specialisation was the pressure felt by defendants in court.  When I am with a client in a court room the problem is easily manageable.  But, the problem often arises where clients decide to attend a first appearance by themselves to enter a not guilty plea in the misguided belief that it will save them money (it won’t because the first appearance is a quick hearing and doesn’t take much solicitor time, the majority of work is done in preparation for the trial).

Thankfully only a few clients chose to go it alone at the first appearance, but the typical pattern I find is the client speaks to me saying he’s been accused of drink driving.  He says he wasn’t the driver or whatever, but says he wants to attend court alone at first.  I make it clear this is a bad idea but tell him what he should do.  After the hearing I call the client and discover that the client pled guilty.  Usually the reason given is along the lines of “the clerk said I didn’t have a defence”.  I have little doubt that the real reason is a loss of confidence and an underlying desire to take the path of least resistance – in effect to get on with the court staff and magistrates.

The moral of the story is that whether somebody is facing a criminal allegation, whether it is drink driving or something more serious, that person is in a very vulnerable position when they step into a police station or a courtroom.  Anybody who is accused of a crime should take legal advice from a qualified solicitor.  The prosecution will always be prepared by a lawyer and represented by somebody who has been trained to present the prosecution’s case.  Why would anybody not want to have a solicitor on their side?

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Time to abolish legal aid?

Lawyers have a reputation for being money grabbing bastards of the lowest level.  It is quite clear when you speak to some people that they cannot differentiate the criminal defence lawyer from the drug dealer or violent husband whom they represent.  I gather this is much the same for soap-opera actors who must put up with being treated as their characters as they shop for underpants.

The current campaign by lawyers of both main legal professions against the legal aid reforms is mostly being ignored by the general public and the media.  But, when the public do hear of it many seem to take the view that the campaign is a fight by lawyers protecting their own income.

The truth is that if lawyers got into the legal aid game to make quick and easy cash then they are fools because legal aid has never been well paid in comparison to other areas of privately funded law. 

More telling is the fact that so many lawyers oppose the government’s legal aid reforms.  If lawyers of both professions were interested solely in money rather than justice, the justice system and the interests of their clients’ and society then they would be campaigning against legal aid being available to anybody.  In fact, lawyers did campaign against the introduction of legal aid in the 1940s (I seem to recall legal aid as we know it appeared around 1949 along with the NHS) because they feared that the lower fees would result in a brain drain from the profession that would lead to a reduction in quality.

Today, lawyers who are only interested in money would not want legal aid for anybody.  They would be fighting against the legal aid system and in favour of individuals financing their own cases.  We could make extra cash by flogging punters (or more likely their families) lovely finance deals.  Would we get paid?  Of course we would.  Look at how many people are willing to spend vast sums just to keep their driving licence.  Imagine what you would spend to avoid missing the next 4-years of your child’s life.  In the USA people risk bankruptcy to avoid prison; there’s no reason to think the British wouldn't pay up to stay free.

It might result in slightly less firms, but I suspect that the remaining firms would be larger and so the number of individual solicitors would probably be roughly similar, all earning vastly higher salaries.  Solicitors being paid privately to litigate would probably be less inclined to conduct their own advocacy so there would be less threat to the independent Bar from solicitor-advocates (like me) and from the employed Bar.

Conversely, there would be a large section of society who had little or no access to the justice system; people who did not receive the benefit of professional legal advice when facing a criminal allegation.  But, if lawyers were only interested in money they why would we all care about some bloke we've never met being falsely accused of rape or murder or burglary or whatever?

The total abolition of legal aid would be good for prosecutors too.  With soaring incomes in the private sector, the public sector would have to increase their salaries to retain their staff.

But, no lawyer is campaigning to abolish legal aid.  Most are campaigning to keep legal aid and retain a system that allows them to receive a reasonable income for doing a very difficult and complex job representing what are often very difficult individuals. 

This is why when you hear lawyers saying that legal aid is necessary, should be retained and is good value for money you can trust what they say… because, lawyers interests would be much better served by doing away with legal aid altogether!