Crime

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 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.
  • 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. Even so, in 2012 nearly 32,000 Magistrates’ and Crown Court trials did not proceed on the appointed day.
  • 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 murderers, rapists, drug dealers, conmen, and paedophiles – 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, certainly 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.

Current issues

  • Legal aid was originally pioneered as a platform to provide justice for those who could not afford it. But rounds of government cuts to the legal aid budget in recent years and other changes such as the introduction of fixed fees and more stringent rules on eligibility, have greatly reduced legal aid's reach. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) came into force on 1 April 2013. It cuts £220 million annually from the £1.1 billion criminal legal aid budget by 2018/19, and removes entire areas – such as employment and immigration – from the scheme.
  • Crime is still covered by legal aid, but criminal legal aid fees for solicitors were heavily reduced over the course of 2014 and 2015, cut by 8.75% each year. Another fee cut was scheduled for 2016 but has been suspended by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) until further notice; a decision is expected on further cuts by April 2017.
  • MoJ also proposed a 'dual contracting' system which would cut the number of duty contracts for solicitors providing 24-hour cover at police stations from 1,600 to 527. Due to substantial opposition to the proposals they were unceremoniously scrapped in January 2016.
  • The vast majority of the opposition that forced this revaluation of further cuts and changes to the system came from practising criminal lawyers: since 2013 there have been mass walkouts by barristers and solicitors protesting the cuts. In 2015, prominent lawyers including Dinah Rose QC and Tony Cross QC, the chair of the Criminal Bar Association, signed an open letter condemning legal aid cuts. Solicitors and barristers across England and Wales decided to boycott cases pitched at the lower legal aid rates.
  • In July 2014, the president of the Law Society sent a letter to criminal law practitioners warning that hundreds of solicitors' firms will close if the government doesn't postpone the cuts. Despite the scrapping of the dual contracting system and the postponement of some other cuts, the damage already inflicted upon the sector has had tangible consequences. Many firms that had previously excelled in crime are either moving out of the area entirely or no longer accept publicly funded clients, while others are merging or shifting their focus from high-street criminal cases to fraud, commercial or private client work. The sector is in the midst of a fairly radical and very controversial overhaul, and – whatever the outcome – it is likely to look very different in the future.
  • The traditionally close relationship between barristers and solicitors could be threatened by the rise of public access work, which allows barristers to bypass solicitors to gain clients, with fixed fees agreed in advance.
  • As with all practice areas, the impact on the crime sector of the UK's decision to leave the EU can only really be quantified once the terms are fully negotiated. Much depends on whether the UK will continue to be a party to the EU's system of free movement of goods and people, as many organisations and EU criminal laws were created to cope with the inevitable complications that free movement creates. If the UK agrees to remain a part of the free movement area, it would have to cooperate with European bodies (such as Europol) which co-ordinate mutual recognition and interstate policing, but would probably have little input as to how these organisations are run.
  • Since the Jimmy Savile saga and the start of Operation Yewtree, there has been a huge rise in the number of historic sex abuse allegations. The heat of the Savile case and the surrounding furore means that many cases are being brought on the strength of one allegation alone.
  • More and more high-profile inquests are taking place – the total number of inquests opened in 2015 was a whopping 27% higher than in 2014. Lawyers who represented the families at the recent Hillsborough Inquests were given an outstanding achievement award at the Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year Awards. The high-profile inquest came to a conclusion in April 2016, 27 years after the disaster, with the remarkable and stunning conclusion by the jury that the 96 Liverpool fans had been 'unlawfully killed'. 
  • Check out www.clsa.co.uk for other news and discussion on major developments in criminal practice.

The criminal courts of England and Wales