I consider myself lucky to have a job that I enjoy, that lets me do something that I think makes a difference and that on most days I think I am not bad at. Often, the hours are long, the pressure is unrelenting, the clients demands are sometimes unrealistic and the thanks are for the most part few and far between. Yet, I wouldn’t change what I do and actually look forward to getting to work and getting down to it. I am one of many who I am sure feel the same way. Criminal justice on both sides of the coin, prosecution and defence is so much more than a job, it becomes a way of life and without wanting to sound all holier than thou, a vocation.
I joined the profession at the tail end of the last big recession in the nineties. As a trainee, one of my responsibilities was trucking down to the local County Court to appear before the local District Judge in his chambers and represented one or more of a number of different banks, building societies and mortgage companies applying for possession of someone’s home who had fallen behind in their mortgage payments. There would be twenty or thirty applications to be made every couple of weeks, each one representing another family that had become overwhelmed by the debt that rising interest rates, loss of their jobs and mounting bills caused by the recession. As a freshly minted keen young trainee, eager to impress, it took me a couple of weeks to fully appreciate the impact on the people, almost always unrepresented, that I faced across the judge’s table. Every time the judge refused the possession on a minor paperwork issue, or imposed a suspended possession order I took it as a blow, a loss for my clients.
The local district judge was, and probably still is, a fierce looking chap. A smart beard, small round glasses and a quick tongue, he didn’t suffer fools gladly. One Monday after an unusually large number of hearings, he asked me to stay behind. We spoke for about an hour; about the job, about me, where I had come from and what I wanted to do, about the law, justice and people over a cup of wretched coffee whilst he smoked his pipe. He told me what he thought the job was about, and why he did what he did.
He explained that as far as he was concerned as long as the other side turned up and could show to him why they had defaulted he would never take their home away and would always grant them a suspended possession order. The banks had lots of homes, those appearing before him only the one. The banks and mortgage companies could afford justice because they could always afford someone like me to appear before people like him. Those on the other side not so much. It was his job to ensure that the right thing was done. He said to me that as long as I practiced law to always remember that there was no such thing as justice if it was only accessible to those who could pay for it. That justice wasn’t just a concept, but a real and living thing that should be protected and fought for. If I remembered that and strove to protect that, then it didn’t matter whether I won or lost each case.
That conversation stuck with me and I have no doubt helped make me the lawyer I am today, and certainly helped me decide that criminal defence work was what I wanted to do. I have thought of those words often in the past few years as I have seen the profession on all sides eroded by cuts and seen people at their wits end as they realise that they cannot afford to be represented in court.
The Government in the past five years have systematically dismantled the justice system; cuts to the police force, legal aid, the courts, probation and prisons all in the name of saving money and reducing the deficit. The cuts have nothing to do with austerity and everything to do with ideology. Money may have been saved but at what long term cost?
Today we are asked to vote for a government for the next five years. It is not for me to tell anyone how to vote, no-one should tell anyone how to do that. Personally, I won’t be voting for any party that believes that access to justice is only for those who can afford it.