As we all know from shows like Crime Scene Investigation, the practice of criminal law has been glamorised. There are good guys, bad guys and shades of grey. The work can exciting and sometimes dangerous (there have been reports of clients attacking their lawyers).
Crime is a persistent phenomenon and shows no signs of abating. The moral quandaries of defence work are also ongoing. How should society judge a lawyer who will defend someone accused of heinous crimes? What about when their client actually pleads guilty and confesses but the lawyer helps them get a lenient sentence through their superior presentation skills?
Opinion polls consistently show lawyers ranking relatively low in the public eye. Roy Morgan’s survey of the public’s image of professions shows lawyers coming in behind nurses, doctors, pharmacists and even ministers of religion (who have taken a beating in recent years due to the ongoing revelation of child abuse claims).
Lawyers have ethical obligations enshrined in the Legal Profession Act 2004. The Law Institute of Victoria also publishes guidelines on topics ranging from conflict of interest to the ethical use of social media.
Recently I spoke to criminal lawyer Tony Danos about what it’s like in a career that involves interacting with a range of diverse clientele, many of whom may have a personal background that includes poverty, mental illness and prior crimes of a significant nature.
Danos sees the ethical quandaries of practicing criminal law in terms of his duty to clients to represent their interests fearlessly while balancing his obligations to the court of professional candour and honesty. Danos can’t mislead the court but he can present the strongest possible case for his client within the rules.
Given that he’s been practicing since the 1980s, Danos says he’s used to the rough and tumble personalities and difficult emotional issues frequently encountered in his work. One of his most difficult cases was Tony Angel, who was charged with culpable driving. Angel drove through a train crossing and became involved in a collision that killed his wife and daughter. One would think that the parents of Angel’s deceased wife would hate him, yet this was not the case. The parents of Angel’s deceased wife stood by Danos’ client at court suggesting there was no clear ‘bad guy’ in this case despite Angel being charged by police.
How does he justify acting for morally reprehensible people? The answer is that everyone deserves a fair trial regardless of the crime they are accused of. “At the end of the day guilt is something established by a court and it’s not for me to pre-judge someone" he says. "Everyone deserves procedural fairness and a right to be heard.”
Even those criminals that plead guilty sometimes have mitigating circumstances that deserve court attention. Child abusers have sometimes been abused themselves. Husband killers might be wives who have been physically and emotionally assaulted over a period of many years and finally snap. This doesn’t make their actions justified but Danos agrees that it’s his job to elicit empathy for the circumstances of his client and find something good about them to convey to a judge.
This might seem strange for those who have never come face-to-face with the criminal law and have led a life free of sin, however consider the following: some of the world’s greatest statesmen have defended people that they could ordinarily have expected to dislike very much. There are some things in life that are worth fighting for and a fair trial is one of them.
Thus, John Adams – who would go on to become the second president of the United States – defended the British soldiers charged with the Boston Massacre despite being an outspoken supporter of the American independence struggle against British rule. Six of the soldiers were acquitted and two were convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter. At a time when the soldiers had struggled to find someone willing to represent them, Adams stepped up to the plate.
Consider also the situation when someone technically breaks the law, but is justified in their actions. Mahatma Gandhi broke several British laws during his civil disobedience actions but was – in hindsight – undoubtedly morally justified in doing so due to the level of oppression exercised by British against the Indian people.
It’s true that there’s real evil in the world. There are serial killers who are beyond redemption and have no mitigating circumstances. How can it be said that lawyers ought to defend such people? And perhaps even help them walk free on a technicality? Simply put, our justice system is premised on the assumption that it’s better to let 100 guilty people walk free than put 1 innocent person in jail.
You never know when you’ll make a mistake because of whatever you were going through at that stage in your life. And that’s when you’ll need to call a criminal lawyer for competent and effective legal representation.