If a criminal lawyer had a pound for every time they were asked this question, then we would all truly be Fat Cat Lawyers! Sadly, for our pockets, it is not quite the case. It might be frustrating at times to be on the receiving end of this much-repeated question, but it is by no means a silly one.
The truth is, we act on our instructions from the client, whatever they may be.
We may sometimes suspect that someone is guilty, but we rarely know for sure. We adhere to strict rules of law and ethics, and we cannot knowingly mislead the Court. If a client tells us that he or she has committed the offence in question, then we cannot allow him or her to give evidence of his or her innocence under oath otherwise we would be complicit in their perjury.
We deal with every type of person you can imagine committing every type of offence you can think of. Personal feelings and thoughts are put aside, otherwise at times our job would be too difficult. We are not allowed to refuse to represent someone because we do not like what they say or even if we do not like them personally.
We advise our clients on the strengths of the case against them and on their instructions, and we give honest advice on whether they are likely to be believed. But ultimately, it is not for us to make a judgement on their guilt or innocence. That is what the Courts are there for.
As a young trainee, I remember one of the first Crown Court trials that I prepared. I believed my client whole-heartedly that he had not stolen some money from a close relative. So, you can imagine my surprise when, on the day of trial, the barrister asked him if he had committed the offence and he confessed that yes, he had indeed stolen the money.
After that case, I woke up and became more objective. There have been other occasions when I have had an initial feeling about a client’s guilt, but then a witness has come forward and has given credible evidence to prove his or her innocence.
So, the truth is, unless we were present when the crime was committed, or unless the client openly confesses the crime to us, we do not know if they are guilty or innocent.
Even when all of the evidence points to the guilt of a client, they are still entitled to a fair trial and that is what we help to enforce. It is for the prosecution to prove the case against them beyond reasonable doubt (they are innocent until proven guilty after all) and so we monitor proceedings and advance and enhance our client’s legal rights from the outset.
Of course, there are also times when we advise our client that they have no defence and that they should plead guilty at the first opportunity. We point out the witness evidence against them, any CCTV or forensic evidence, and where their defence may struggle.
If they take our advice and plead guilty, their sentence may be reduced from what it would have been after a trial hearing. We can then put forward their personal mitigation, which may be substantial, and help them to obtain a sentence which both marks the offence that they have committed and takes into consideration personal difficulties or achievements.
Of course, we are focusing on the guilty, but not everyone that appears in the police station or in court is guilty. People make mistakes and some people make false allegations, and of course there are a whole raft of miscarriages of justice that you can Google.
The only fair way to deal with a defendant is by allowing a court to hear both sides of the story, so that an objective decision can be made. What chance would anyone have if their own lawyer judged them from the outset?
Even if the client is guilty, there is something very satisfying about helping someone through probably one of the most difficult times of their life and ensuring that the police and prosecution play by the rules.
How can we represent the guilty? We don’t judge, we just do our best for them.