Criminal Law Isn’t Only About Billing
A Unique Perspective On Criminal Law, by Oliver Gardner of Howards Solicitors
A file I picked up today to review inspired me to write this blog.
It is a file relating to a man accused of a crime to which at the very first court hearing in October last year he pleaded guilty. Notwithstanding the huge amount of work undertaken, the 12 or so visits to see him in prison, the 8 court appearances thus far etc. etc. my firm’s fee for this case will not exceed £200.
The two doctors I had assess him, (see below) were paid £2500 each for one visit to the prison and one report. I am not criticising, they did an amazing job, rather I am illustrating the imbalance and the significance why will become clear as you read on. Nevertheless I did it, am glad I did it and would do it over again and below I explain why:
The offence to which he has pleaded guilty is the same offence he has previously pleaded guilty to having committed over 27 times in the past 9 years.
He is strange man, in his late 40s with terrible eczema which covers his hands, face and bald scalp and no doubt the rest of his body which thank goodness I have not seen. He is a loner, never married, never had a girlfriend, no family to speak of.
However, there is something about him that is quite endearing. He is also quite interesting and over the last 9 months or so I feel I have gotten to know him well and developed a relationship with him.
I should add at this time that I do not think I am unique in that I get to know my clients well. I think rather than it being due to some quality that I possess, it is the nature of the solicitor – client relationship that provides for relationships to be cultivated in this way. Clients of a criminal lawyer are always in trouble, the odds are stacked against them, they are often desperate and anxious and have a lot to lose if things go wrong. Naturally they place a huge amount of trust in the one person who stands up for them and not withstanding what they have been accused of nevertheless takes their side.
I was really intrigued by this man, I had to understand why he was continuing to commit this offence over and over again. I could not tolerate yet another short custodial sentence being imposed only for him to come out and do it all over again. I had to find a way of at least trying to stop the cycle. My role as a criminal solicitor is not to just help guilty people find a way out of their culpability, it is to ensure that the client makes the best decision in his/her circumstances and work along with other agencies to try to ensure the most effective punishment is ultimately handed down to those guilty of their crimes. This is the only way the criminal justice system can most effectively work to rehabilitate people as well as punishing them.
In discussions it became obvious to me that he really did not see the harm that he was doing. He justified his actions over and over on the basis that there was no real victim (his victims were often unaware he was even doing it). I spent a long time debating with him and through this it became clear to me that he had a compulsive behaviour. He described to me how after having been raped at the age of 10 (something else he had never previously disclosed to anyone) and having received no therapy or counselling thereafter he developed obsessions, it was trains at first, then it became photography, now it is people. It did not come as a surprise to me that he has obsessions; I get several letters per week from him as do the prison authorities, the courts, the police and anyone else he happens at that time to have an interest in. It was however a break through in that we now had a possible psychological reason to explain this behaviour. There was never any doubt that his offending was in some way linked to this obsessive behaviour. Now if we can identify the root cause, we may be able to treat it and stop the cycle.
I commissioned a psychological report. The author of the report did not find a psychological disorder that would otherwise explain this compulsive behaviour. I felt deflated, I was so optimistic for him and now we were back to square one. I challenged the author of the report, after some time she conceded that another expert in a different field may assist. This other expert did just that: He made a diagnosis of Autism. When I received the report and read its conclusions I honestly felt like I had won the lottery.
I was so happy for the client to have finally secured him a diagnosis for which he can now seek help but at the same time I was filled with a sadness; imagine a life growing up with undiagnosed autism, being shunned by those around you and not understanding why, being unable to recognise and understand social norms and similarly being unable to demonstrate them yourself to the point people think you are weird and avoid you. Then at the age of 10 being raped and not being offered counselling thereafter, the effects of which would have been all the worse for having been autistic and undiagnosed.
As a consequence of being failed time and time again by the system intended to help people like you, as a result of petty-crime you spend the entirety of your adult life in and out of prison serving short, pointless sentences that serve only to further confuse you, alienate you from society and cause chaos in your otherwise miserable existence.
It is too late for my client, although he may now receive some treatment he will never marry, never secure a decent job, never own his own home and have family. I only hope that his diagnosis and the treatment he will now benefit from affords him some peace and resolve.
It is not however too late for so many others. We as criminal lawyers cannot be the last refuge of the hopeless, the mentally ill, the lost and forgotten amongst society. We must continue to fight for the vital services needed to help the most vulnerable in society. I believe criminal lawyers are unique in that their commitment to their clients and the rule of law will always provide that where all else fails a criminal lawyer will step in and pick up the pieces. When the full force of this Governments austerity kicks in and lawyers are reduced to working for even less and our firms are turned into corporate machines for producing fast food law at the lowest cost what then will happen to my client?
The good intentions and ethical values that drive so many lawyers will be replaced with a drive to maximise profits and there is no room for sentimentality in the pursuit of short term profit. My client will spend the rest of his life in and out of prison, untreated and at even greater cost to the public. There is no chance that the other services will pick him up, they are suffering the same austerity and being forced to adopt similar commercially driven models.
That is why we do it, but for how much longer can we!
Details about the author:
Oliver Gardner is criminal Solicitor and Director at Howards Solicitors with offices in Manchester and South Cheshire. Oliver is a committee member of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association and is trained in psychotherapy to level 3.