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.

Current issues

October 2023

  • It’s been well-documented that the criminal justice system in the UK has felt the sustained impact of cuts to legal aid since the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 came into force. 
  • Recently, it has emerged that solicitors will receive a fee increase that is 40% less than the recommended rate to keep the criminal justice system afloat, according to the Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid. The lack of funding can be felt across the UK as there has been a drastic drop in free legal services in local areas. 
  • The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic continue to be felt by the sector, with significant impacts on court proceedings. One recent interviewee pointed out that: “There was a huge impact for anyone with a heavy court-based practice. There was a period for a few months at the early stages of the pandemic where everything just got vacated or adjourned, and it took the courts quite a bit of time to get into shape with facilitating hearings over teams or whatever format they used at the time.”
  • In 2021, the Law Society described the UK criminal justice system as ‘crumbling’. It recommended an increase in criminal duty solicitors; amending the narrow and ‘restrictive’ margins by which criminal legal aid means testing is conducted; remedying the ‘inefficient and unfairness’ in court case and hearing cancellations; as well as releasing those under investigation and pre-charge bail.
  • Sexual offence is an area that has felt the effects of this. With trials taking years to come around, it has been reported that 70% of victims are dropping their cases due to lack of faith in the system.
  • This year, the controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act came into force. Primarily introduced the thwart criminal activity, the Act generated backlash over its strict anti-protest elements. The Act grants stronger powers to police to stop protests deemed ‘disruptive’.
  • A recent example of the severe backlash was the sentencing of Just Stop Oil protesters who halted traffic as they hung above the Dartford Crossing for hours. One of these individuals was imprisoned for three years under the new act.
  • During the lockdown period, domestic violence crime 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. This prompted the passing of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021. The Act introduced the first-ever statutory government definition of domestic abuse to include economic abuse and controlling and manipulative non-physical abuse.  
  • 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.

The criminal courts of England and Wales