Criminal law is a most rewarding career but Covid pandemic backlog and other problems are putting people off – Karyn McCluskey

There is something alien about being in the justice system: the cloaks, the horsehair wigs, the language (and the Latin) used by people immersed in the system.

Appearing in court can be a daunting prospect for those unfamiliar with the process (Picture: David Cheskin/PA)
Appearing in court can be a daunting prospect for those unfamiliar with the process (Picture: David Cheskin/PA)

They talk to each other in a language only they understand for the most part; “intermediate diets” (short procedural hearings), “continued without plea” (more time needed before entering a plea), and “desert case pro loco et tempore” (stop the case from proceeding). I had to use Google.

So imagine being in the justice system, perhaps for the first time, and trying to navigate your way through this strange land with uninterpretable language, then add fear – either as the complainer, witness or the accused, and you have a recipe for extreme discombobulation.

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In most courts, there are services that help support the complainers, particularly for the most serious cases. For the accused (who is innocent ’til proven guilty) it is their defence lawyer who is the navigator and will be, latterly, the person who presents the case to the sheriff and sometimes a jury, who can influence the outcome between bail or remand in custody, a sentence or release.

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The most panicked phone calls I receive are often from parents of people accused of an offence. They are looking for guidance, they are looking for someone to explain: they are looking for a defence lawyer.

Make no mistake, a good defence lawyer can transform your experience in the system. They can explain the process, quell your nerves (somewhat), give clear direction, listen and construct a defence – they are critical to matters like a plea in mitigation. Done well, this is a thing to behold, and you really appreciate the skill of the lawyer.

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Being a defence lawyer is a tough and demanding role, juggling court cases, visiting clients who are remanded, reading cases at night to prepare for court. The people who come through the door of law firms are some of the most challenging, complicated and vulnerable individuals in society, who may have learning difficulties, be in addiction, homeless and other have issues. Anger, frustration, sadness and hopelessness abound.

Some will know their defence lawyer well, as this will not be their first rodeo, others must form a relationship, confiding traumas and truths and relying on the professional to advise them.

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My message to young law students is to consider criminal law, to see the most rewarding of careers, but it can be a demanding, frustrating and unforgiving master. There is nothing quite like the reality check of getting a call at night to turn up to a far-flung police station to advise a client, to make you think some other type of law might be preferable. There is no doubt the current backlog of cases, primarily as a result of the pandemic, is impacting on all of the actors within the justice system and this includes defence agents.

Everyone must be afforded their rights while being held accountable for their wrongs. Adapting to new mechanisms, such as virtual custody courts, bring particular challenges, but there are a myriad of other pressures which are affecting the profession that deserve something longer than this column and go to the heart of justice in Scotland. We ignore them at our peril.

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Karyn McCluskey is chief executive of Community Justice Scotland

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