“The Criminal Legal Aid Review has done nothing to alter the fundamentals of the current crisis.”
Stress rarely comes with a warning tattooed on our forehead. Nor is it always announced by the sufferer in eloquent and clear terms to warn others about their current mental health. Rather, it creeps up on us, on a stealth mission that alters our behaviour. It can make us quieter and more reserved or ill-tempered and volatile. It leads to bad decision-making or a refusal to make any decision at all. It is insidious and a silent killer of logic and rationality. Yet stress pervades the criminal justice system.
Let us start with the defendants. Allegations can make them feel ashamed, unworthy, frightened and angry. Panic can overcome them in these situations. They are involved in a life-changing experience – it may deprive them of their liberty or reputation and it is done in the most public of ways. The system in which they are engaged appears archaic and old-fashioned, and even designed to obtain conviction as quickly and cheaply as possible. The whole process is one where they are not in control, but reliant on their lawyers to assist them, and sometimes they find it difficult to relate to them or even doubt how committed they are to their particular case.
This is a perfect cocktail of ingredients to make you suffer from extreme stress and anxiety. In the wake of the suicide of Caroline Flack, many commentators have noted1Owen Bowcott, ‘Barristers warn of strain on defendants after Caroline Flack death’, Guardian, 16 February 2020.
that the criminal justice system is ill-equipped to handle this. Of course, no one doubts that victims should be at the heart of a criminal justice system, but that system must surely be better designed for defendants too. The level of support available to those accused of criminal offences is pitifully low. Even more astonishing is the lack of training given to all legal professionals on how to deal with this. We learn our statutes and our case law but clients take that for granted: they consult a lawyer assuming that the lawyer knows the law. They value the ability to communicate that with them, to empathise with and to fight for them. How we communicate is key to this.
None of this is easy, especially under the time pressures that we all face. I remember emailing my clients that they had been charged with a terrorist offence but not immediately appreciating the turmoil that this would cause; I remember watching a young man feel his life was falling apart as he was charged with drug offences. As professionals, we are used to the day-to-day chaos that is the criminal justice system. For lay clients, though, particularly those for whom it is their first experience, it is as if they have entered a complex, alien world. Sometimes clients need to make life-defining decisions in a relatively short space of time, in a cell or without the opportunity to speak to family. We need to be aware of those pressures at all times.
However, while we at least try to deal well with client stresses, we are abject failures in dealing with our own stress issues. Never in my 20 years as a criminal defence lawyer have the pressures felt so great. They come from many sources: the financial pressure of legal aid work, increased case management from the judiciary, increased regulation, heightened client expectation and longer working hours. Our well-being and safety are at dangerously low levels. It is quite simply not sustainable. There are times when I, as a senior practitioner, feel that I cannot cope, dark days where there are too many fires to fight and those fires seem out of control. I know that I am not alone in that – many colleagues across the profession think the same and it is incumbent on us to look after our junior members of the profession, who feel these pressures even more acutely
Yes, it is exhilarating: we love the client contact, the politics of holding the state to account, the fight of a trial and the adrenalin rush of success. But the pressure is now constant. More and more are leaving the profession. Recruitment is harder and harder. Criminal lawyers are at risk of becoming an endangered species due to the low rates of pay, the long working hours and the stress. So far, the Criminal Legal Aid Review
has done nothing to alter the fundamentals of the crisis in which we find ourselves. Clients cry to us for help. It is our turn to sound the alarm to judges, to the Legal Aid Agency, to the government. We must find a better way – for our and our clients’ sakes.