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Criminal Defence Lawyers, Unscrupulous People or Champions of Justice?

Criminal defence lawyers are normally perceived as scumbags for defending the lowest of the low. However, they serve an important purpose for society by upholding some of the most basic principles of justice.

Written by johnleemk on 4:01:17 am Feb 27, 2007.

There is a common negative perception of criminal defence lawyers. This perception stems from the simple fact that defence lawyers often work for some of the most evil and horrid people imaginable. How, one is inclined to ask, can anyone with some moral scruples justify this?

To understand what would motivate a man of morals to defend the lowest scum of society, it is important to be aware of one basic presumption — the presumption that all accused are innocent until proven guilty.

After all, many a case has ended in the acquittal of a suspect who everyone had thought was guilty, until some new evidence came to light. On more than one occasion, years after a trial, DNA evidence has overturned the conviction.

Clearly, then, it is more than money that could motivate a lawyer to defend the accused criminal. After all, it is in the interest of justice that there is a fair trial — justice must not only be done, but be seen to be done, in the words of one famous English jurist.

Beyond that, it is important to note the complexity of the law. I am not a student of criminal law, although when studying the English legal system, I was particularly fond of answering questions on the English Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. Nevertheless, the civil law is incredibly complicated, with an immense maze of rules and nuanced precedents that can take years to even partially unravel.

The same applies for criminal law. Any advanced society needs to be able to handle a wide variety of situations and circumstances. In the days of cavemen, doling out justice would have been simplicity itself — and yet, even then, I am sure that on more than one occasion, complex cases with grey areas would arise.

In a modern society, we are forced to confront cases, both criminal and civil, that can be mindboggling in their complexity. A decision that would be suitable for one circumstance may not do justice in another circumstance. To address this problem, judges distinguish and create new precedents.

This growing array of laws presents a problem for the layman, and that is where lawyers come in. Defence lawyers exist to preserve justice through a simple economic concept — competition.

If the prosecution did not have to argue with a fellow lawyer, but contend instead with the layman (be he guilty or not), it would have a field day. The constant walkovers would make the prosecution complacent, and before long, they would be doing a shoddy job of handling trials.

Judges too would tire of constantly facing the same walkovers, and after a while become conditioned to be naturally predisposed against the accused, or just as bad, begin to take trials less seriously than they ought to be. It is quite likely that if criminal lawyers only defended clients that they truly believed to be innocent, travesties of justice would begin to be committed in much larger numbers than they are at the present.

The purpose of defence lawyers was summed up beautifully by one counsel, famous for his practice of defending some of the most malevolent men to be tried in a court of law. This man said that the purpose of a lawyer is not to act as an independent agent defending the accused, but to act as a legal mouthpiece — to say what the accused would have said, had he legal training.

It is of course true that many lawyers are unscrupulous people. Certainly, some have less than fine motives for defending their clients. But it is impossible to deny that they serve a purpose in our society, and that this purpose has been, to date, much underrated.