The Briefs and criminal law – it’s a numbers game
Those of you able to tear yourself away from the Olympics last night might have caught the first of a two-part behind-the-scenes documentary about the lawyers and clients at the Manchester office of Tuckers.
The Briefs was made by Chameleon Television, which spent a year with the firm that styles itself as ‘the number one criminal defence firm in the country’. Through the clients the programme sought to show the gritty human reality of criminal defence work, rather than the more glamorous version portrayed in other shows like Silk or Judge John Deeds.
Viewers were introduced to clients including 63-year-old Vera, the oldest drug dealer in town, charged with possession with intent to supply; and Alex, a man with 22 convictions for burglary who is charged with... you’ve got it, burglary. The firm’s senior partner Franklin Sinclair, describing the firm’s mixed clientele, says they tend to be drug addicted, alcoholic, or have mental health problems, or are people with ‘a bit of an attitude’ who are ‘volatile and easily disturbed’.
It was sad to hear about some of them, who undoubtedly have issues that need to be addressed by other agencies rather than the criminal justice system, and who without such help may continue to re-offend.
But it is perhaps stating the obvious to say that criminal law firms need such people in order to survive.
Viewers, who heard that 90% of Tuckers' work comes from returning clients, were flies on the wall during a marketing meeting led by the head of the firm’s police station team Michelle Feager. She tells her team ‘times are hard and we need more quantity. We need shoplifters, we need repeat offenders’.
But, says Sinclair, it is too simplistic just to say that firms profit from the bad behaviour of their clients. He points out that law firms are businesses that need to make a profit in order to survive, or they will not be able to defend anyone.
The desire for publicity and business, says Sinclair, was one of the main reasons that Tuckers agreed to take part in the show when they were approached by the film-makers.
‘We are definitely hoping to get more business – it’s very important to us – we’re in a difficult market at the moment,’ he says. Because of the changes made to criminal legal aid over the last five years, Sinclair explains ‘it has become totally a numbers game – it’s all about volume’.
With the police cautioning more people or getting offenders to write letters of apology instead of charging them, firms are competing for that increased volume of work in a world of ever reducing volume.
‘There are less cases and payments are being manipulated to be as low as they can. We’re being hammered,’ he says.
In addition, Sinclair says, Tuckers is having to compete in a market with ‘cowboy criminal law firms’ that deal with cases ‘in a shoddy manner.’
‘It is hard for our firm to compete with that and provide a quality service,’ he says.
The other reasons for participating in the film, he says, were to answer the ‘dinner party question’ about how criminal lawyers can represent horrible clients, and to dispel the myth that they just ‘get people off’. It is likely that Tuckers will benefit from the publicity generated by the programme, but its current local profile it could not be described as low-key.
During the show, among shots of famous Manchester monuments, we catch a glimpse of an enormous Tuckers advert right outside Minshull Street Crown Court.
If firms like Tuckers potentially find the current environment challenging, how are others firms coping and how will they continue to struggle on? After all, there probably isn’t scope to make a documentary about every criminal legal aid firm in the country.
Catherine Baksi is a reporter on the Gazette
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