Last week I completed a three day mini-pupillage at a set of Chambers in the north of England. I was fortunate to follow one barrister for two and a half of these three days, and get myself involved in a criminal trial.
This was an interesting experience as up until then the majority of court cases which I had been involved in were that which took place in the Magistrates courts, and so by its very nature, were cases which involved less serious offences. So one could argue that the view which I had of ‘defendants’ (either rightly or wrongly) was built upon by a mixture of a middle-class, reading of The Daily Telegraph and the opinion that the majority of those hauled up before the courts were there because of their own doing.
I can not of course go into detail of the specifics of the case which I was involved in, however the key issue involved a matter of self defence, with the main question being was the force that was used ‘reasonable’ within the circumstances. Along with meeting family members, and prosecuting counsel, I did got to meet the defendant, whom we shall refer to as Mr X. His list of previous convictions were in double, almost triple figures, and someone I would almost certainly not like to meet in a dark alley. However in these convictions Mr X had plead guilty, in this trial he was pleading not guilty.
Upon entering the cells I didn’t really know what to expect, having read the files I was surprised to find Mr X calm, relaxed and very receptive to the advice given to him by counsel.
This got me thinking. Previously I had always thought that prosecuting in criminal cases would be what I would enjoy, after all based on my previous thoughts Mr X was before the court for his own doing. Even though his past and childhood were less than normal, he would know the right and wrongs of the world. However Mr X, a man, who yes had previous convictions had always raised his hands and admitted his guilt, if I applied my then views, it stands to reason that Mr X is guilty here, and so the trial would have just been a formality.
Thankfully our justice system works on the basis of innocent until proven guilty, and that everyone has the right to be defended. I found myself in the cells, not warming to Mr X as such, but realising the importance of innocent until proven guilty.
If we didn’t have the criminal justice system that we do, Mr X would be in the position where every crime that was committed had the potential to be blamed on him, purely for his past guilt, in other words he had done something wrong in the past and so must have done something wrong now.
I would have thought that under no circumstances would I have wanted to defend, I would have wanted to stand up in front of a court and explain why the jury should convict the Mr X’s of the world. After my mini-pupillage I have come to the conclusion that yes, there are some people in the world that do deserve the weight of the law to land on them, and that if I had to defend such a person I would find it hard to sleep at night. However this is no longer the case.
Listening to only one side of the argument may prevent Mr X’s from walking the streets, however I’ve come to the conclusion that if there is one thing that is more dangerous than a guilty man walking, it is that of an innocent man being convicted of a crime he did not commit.
So having said that, should I make it to the criminal bar, would I still mind defending? No I would not. Yes I may like the idea of prosecuting more, however should a brief land on me that requires me to defend, it wouldn’t cause me the mental moral arguments that I once had.
After my three days I walk away with a new respect for the lawyers that are tasked with defending Mr and Mrs X’s, knowing the foundation of innocent until proven guilty is what is worth defending, not necessarily defending the defendant themselves.