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The criminal defender in an age of austerity: Zealous advocate or cog in a machine?

Fionnuala Ratcliffe and Penelope Gibbs
23 Jul 2019

Most lawyers agree that the quality of defence advice and advocacy is mixed. As with medical professionals, the results of poor, or simply mediocre, defence advice and advocacy make a huge difference. Defendants can end up entering the wrong plea, getting convicted when they were innocent and receiving a much more punitive sentence than their offence merited. Some lawyers also get the law wrong. There is no hard evidence as to whether the standard of defence advice and advocacy is declining. But the systemic barriers to achieving good advice and representation are getting higher.

In courts the drive for managerial efficiency is too often at odds with the demands of good representation, and lawyers are sometimes forced to compromise – to do an OK job for their client when they want to do an excellent one. Most defendants still want to use a lawyer, but there are some indications that trust in defence practitioners may be ebbing away. Trust will continue to decline unless the government and other agencies prioritise fulfilling the rights of defendants to effective participation and fair trial. Defence lawyers and advocates need time and space to give their clients the best advice. To do this they need the right pay, terms and conditions. Many lawyers get paid a pittance – either overall, or for particular pieces of work – and their legal aid rates have declined in recent years. A barristers’ strike in 2022 led to increased fees but many lawyers still feel demotivated and underpaid.