Criminal practitioner, London
Growing up in Newcastle upon Tyne, my family had no connection to the legal profession. I lost count of how many times my parents asked me what I was going to do at university or for a future career. I was never able to come up with a response.
My initial choice of doing a history degree was based on my interests rather than career prospects. I was discouraged from that course due to perceived limitations in career opportunities, and steered in the direction of reading law.
During my sixth-form work experience, I observed hearings before the criminal courts, care proceedings and employment litigation. Having fallen into a law degree, with a bit of a push, I came to realise that I really enjoyed the problem-solving and analysis required in contentious litigation.
I left university in 2008 at the height of the recession and was fortunate to secure a job at a prominent commercial firm of solicitors. I joined their volume secured debt recovery department – or their housing repossession department as it is more commonly known. It quickly became apparent that the legal system frequently leaves its most vulnerable to fend for themselves, often pitted against qualified and experienced advocates. This puts them at a significant disadvantage in proceedings that will ultimately impact their lives and the lives of their loved ones.
Having seen the harsh realities of the legal system, I pledged to focus my career on representing society’s most vulnerable. In doing so, I opted for lower pay and long hours. I secured a number of paralegal roles in practices in South Yorkshire and London before getting an elusive training contract at a well-respected practice in the north-east of England. Having qualified as a solicitor-advocate, I dived into the deep and murky waters of criminal law, defending a range of general and serious criminal matters.
Legal aid cuts are also impacting on the ability of the criminal justice system to achieve its primary duty – to uphold the law and to deliver justice
Advocacy is not for the faint-hearted – it is a tough and precise art. It requires a thick exterior and a willingness to enter battle if required. When defending the vulnerable, you are relied upon to protect and further their interests in a sphere which they often find daunting, frightening and confusing. During my years in criminal practice, I am fortunate to have worked with some of the leaders in their field. I was very much attracted to being a specialist advocate. To further my career, I decided to transfer to the criminal bar. My transfer was completed in 2015 – and I have never looked back.
I have represented one of Europe’s most prolific gun runners, a 14-year-old charged with murder, a woman accused of people-trafficking, as well as an assortment of county line drug dealers. Each case comes with its own complexity. Each client has a unique story to tell. The art of advocacy is, in large measure, the ability to tell a story better than your opponent.
My experience as a solicitor has undoubtedly played a significant role in preparing me for a successful practice at the bar. In my view, a solid relationship between solicitors and barristers is absolutely vital to the proper preparation of a criminal case and to the running of the criminal justice system as a whole, and should be symbiotic. A defence team should consist of a team of three: the solicitor, the barrister and the client.
The continuous cuts to legal aid have placed huge pressures on both solicitors and barristers, taking a toll on that essential relationship. Ultimately, the cuts are also impacting on the ability of the criminal justice system to achieve its primary duty – to uphold the law and to deliver justice, whether that be acquitting the innocent or convicting the guilty. I share the desperate concern of criminal solicitors and the criminal bar that the system will slowly wither on the vine unless action is taken to repair the damage.
It is difficult to be an avid supporter of Newcastle United with a London-based practice. Given the work commitments of a busy legal aid practice, it is very easy to immerse yourself in the challenges of work and case preparation. It is, therefore, extremely important to maintain a work/life balance – and I am fortunate to have been able to find a harmony between the two. I regularly travel back to the north-east to attend football matches with my family, which allows me to maintain that much-needed quality family time.