Part 1: What do criminal lawyers actually do?

As the end of the year approaches, many year 12 students will be finishing their exams. All of them will be thinking about what they will be spending their time doing over the summer holidays, and hopefully all of them will also be contemplating what career paths they will be pursuing once they have left high school.

The field of criminal law is as mysterious as it is exciting, and when I am in a social setting I am often asked the same questions over and over. This will be a two part series where I will give some insight into the world of criminal lawyers, such what they do, what their responsibilities are, what it takes to be a criminal lawyer and moral dilemmas that can be encountered by criminal lawyers. Hopefully these articles will be of some assistance to any students who are contemplating a future in this field.

What is the purpose of a criminal lawyer?

Criminal lawyers act for people from all walks of life. Their clients range from taxi drivers, struggling single parents, troubled children, to corporations, directors, bankers, including the rich and famous.

Unfortunately, movies and TV shows have portrayed criminal lawyers in a bad light, prompting members of the public asking the question criminal lawyers get asked too often, “but how can you defend a criminal?”, or “how can you defend a guilty person?”.”

Too often we hear about a media coverage of either someone charged with a serious alleged offence or how a criminal lawyer has got his/her client off a charge due to a “technicality” or “loop hole” in the law. What a lot of people don’t understand is that our aim is not to get our clients off charges due to technicalities – we identify technicalities so that as a whole the justice system is strengthened. What I mean by this is that if we identity technicalities or deficiencies in things such as the conduct of the police when handling or investigating the matter, and we are able to ‘win’ a matter because of this, it will more often than not mean that the police will learn not to make the same mistake again and then overall the criminal justice system is strengthened.

What ‘rules’ do criminal lawyers have to play by?

A criminal lawyer’s job is not just to defend an accused person. It goes far beyond that. A criminal lawyer’s role is generally governed by a set of values and rules, which have been reflected in the Legal Profession Uniform Law Australian Solicitors’ Conduct Rules 2015.

The Solicitors’ conduct rules provide a foundation on how lawyers should ethically conduct themselves as practicing lawyers in Australia. This includes:

  1. To act in the best interest of their clients in any matter which the lawyer represents the client.
  2. To be honest and courteous in all dealings, in the course of working as a lawyer.
  3. To deliver legal services competently, diligently and as promptly as reasonably possible.
  4. To avoid any compromise to his/her dignity and professional independence; and
  5. To comply with the Solicitors’ conduct rules and the law.
  6. A lawyer also has a paramount duty to the administration of justice and the court.

Our criminal justice system is built on the principle that we rather have a guilty person be let free than an innocent person jailed. To reflect this principle in practice, for an accused person to be found guilty, the prosecution is required to prove, with sufficient evidence, to the court that the accused person committed the offence “beyond reasonable doubt”. Up until such time, the accused person is presumed innocent.

In line with the same principle, the accused person is given the benefit of the doubt. This means, if the extent of the evidence shows that an accused person ‘possibly’ committed the crime, the court would be required to return a verdict of “not guilty”, resulting in dismissal of the charge(s) and acquittal of the accused.

How is a criminal lawyer different from any other type of lawyer?

A “criminal lawyer” specialises in the area of criminal law who represents people charged with a criminal offence while protecting their fundamental legal rights, shared by all. In contrast, a “lawyer” is a term used to describe all types of lawyers regardless of their area of specialty, including civil litigation, commercial law, property or family law.

Some lawyers, like GP’s, practice all areas of law in the way a General Practitioner doctor does. When a person is facing a particular complex criminal case/charge, a criminal lawyer is the best person to get accurate advice, guidance and representation from.

What are the responsibilities of a criminal lawyer?

A criminal lawyer is required to test the police’s evidence, protect the clients’ legal rights, to put the clients’ version across in the best possible way, and to assist the court in determining the reliability of the police’s evidence in context where the court is to ultimately determine whether the evidence establishes the allegations beyond reasonable doubt.

This responsibility extends to not misleading the court, to avoid any conflicts of interest in cases, to act in the best interest of clients, and to be honest and courteous in the dealings as a lawyer to uphold the confidence and integrity in the legal profession.

What does it take to be a good criminal lawyer?

To be a good criminal lawyer, the skills needed include strong communication skills which include advocacy and the art of persuasion skills, empathy, sense of justice, willingness to fight for the same fundamental rights we all share regardless of what the client is charged with, ability to identify the important details of the evidence, and an ability to comprehend complicated legislation and legal issues in order to apply that knowledge to the case.

Qualifications required to become a criminal lawyer

Here’s a summary on how to become a criminal lawyer in Australia:

  1. Complete an L.L.B Bachelors of Laws as an undergraduate or post-graduate, usually from a University law school or Juris Doctor (JD).
  2. Complete a Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice and graduate though the College of Law. This requires completion of a Practical Legal Training (PLT) portion as a pre-requisite to being admitted into practice.
  3. Attend the admission ceremony to formally be sworn in as a lawyer by the Supreme Court. This is also referred to as being admitted as a lawyer in order to be allowed to practice as a lawyer, appear in court and give advice to clients under the supervision of a principal lawyer before attaining an unrestricted practising certificate to be allowed to practice without supervision.

In my next article I’ll discuss more in depth of what a criminal lawyer does day to day and the differences between different types of criminal lawyers.

If you’re needing assistance with legal matters or determining your legal rights, Cridland & Hua are the specialists amongst Brisbane Law Firms, practising exclusively in criminal and quasi-criminal law. Contact us today.

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