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. Alongside the simultaneous cuts to policing, these are taking their toll on the criminal justice system. Home Office statistics show that officer numbers fell by more than 20,000 between 2010 and 2018. Newly installed prime minister Boris Johnson vowed to recruit 6,000 more police officers by the summer of 2019, and a total of 20,000 over the next three years.
- The UK's criminal justice system has taken a battering recently. Chief of all its woes are swingeing cuts to legal aid. Funding for law centres decreased from £12 million to £7 million between 2011 and 2019; there was also a drastic drop in the number of local areas offering free legal services. The number of areas has halved in five years, from 94 in 2014 to 47 in 2019.
- The Covid-19 pandemic has had huge ramifications, including a shortage of defence lawyers and a huge number of trials being postponed; some have been pushed back as far as 2022. With trials suspended, criminal courts have implemented the use of digital hearings, turning the concept of open justice court on its head. A whopping 550,000 or so cases currently await court time.
- During the lockdown period, domestic violence crime has increased globally, described as a “shadow pandemic” alongside Covid-19 by the UN. In the UK, charges and cautions for domestic violence rose by 24% with victims trapped at home with their abuser. A domestic abuse bill is now due a date for the second reading in parliament: it contains clauses requiring domestic abusers to take polygraph tests on release and regulations to ban perpetrators from cross-examining victims during family court proceedings. The bill would also introduce the first-ever statutory government definition of domestic abuse to include economic abuse and controlling and manipulative non-physical abuse.
- A more positive result of lockdown was that crimes such as burglary, shoplifting, robbery and theft have all experienced rapid declines as people have had to stay in their homes.
- Police forces around the world have come under intense public scrutiny as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement and killings by police officers. Protesters have highlighted the disproportionate use of police force against black men in the UK, along with stop and searches and deaths in custody. Stop-and-search use in London rose 40% in lockdown; police data also shows that coronavirus fines have been given to disproportionately high numbers of black and Asian people.
- In response to ongoing criticism of the CPS’s handling of rape and sexual assault cases, the CPS is facing a judicial review into what CrowdJustice deemed ‘covert policy changes’. In a further blow to the CPS, the government-appointed Victims' Commissioner publicly attacked the police in a Twitter statement claiming that rape victims’ phones are searched for evidence that could be used to discredit them. In an unusual move, the CPS responded to the claims with a public statement rejecting "misleading and inaccurate" reports about the handling of rape cases.
- 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.
- UK police leaders recently announced a plan of action to address racial inequalities in the criminal justice system: the NPCC aims to address concerns over stop and search, the use of force and under-representation of black and ethnic minority officers. The plan is being drawn up by the CPSO – it is expected to be completed in July 2020. The announcement came a day after a former police officer told MPs that racism was “alive and kicking” in British policing.
- 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.