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John Vander Luit

Editor, Solicitors Journal

Criminal solicitors not doing enough to detect modern slavery

Criminal solicitors not doing enough to detect modern slavery


Practitioners should 'wake up and smell the coffee' in fight against slavery and trafficking

Criminal solicitors must do more to protect victims of slavery and human trafficking, starting with greater engagement of the defence provision in the Modern Slavery Act 2015, the legislation's independent reviewer has said.

Introduced in March 2015, the MSA set an international benchmark in the global fight against slavery by increasing law enforcement powers and strengthening protections for survivors.

Under section 45 of the Act, defendants of a criminal offence can be found not guilty if they can prove they were compelled into the criminal act in question as a result of being a victim of slavery or exploitation.

Barrister Caroline Haughey of Furnival Chambers, who carried out the first independent review of the MSA last year, told Solicitors Journal that some law firms and their solicitors have failed to embrace the section 45 defence.

'There has not been enough engagement with this defence and I see this from my own work as a prosecution and defence practitioner,' she said. 'It frustrates me that there is certainly, in some law firms, a reluctance to understand the implications of this.

'They have not really acknowledged the extent and responsibility that they have to embrace with this and that concerns me. Where they see someone who could potentially be a victim of exploitation and trafficking, [solicitors] need to respond to that and deal with it accordingly.'

The Law Society offers guidance for solicitors who deal with criminal prosecutions of victims of trafficking and also organises training sessions for solicitor advocates who engage with vulnerable victims.

Meanwhile, the Bar Council offers vulnerable witness advocacy training for barristers and solicitor advocates dealing with publicly funded criminal cases relating to serious sexual offences.

Haughey called for advocacy training to be made mandatory for all criminal cases involving vulnerable witnesses. 'In the courts now there are so many more people who are vulnerable by background.

'You need to have certain skills to utilise or deploy when you're cross-examining or asking questions to do them justice, irrespective of whether you are defending or prosecuting.'

However, before cases even reach court, Haughey called on solicitors to take greater care with their clients, which includes gathering more information about their backgrounds.

'In a utopian world I would like every solicitor to go in with a check-list about what to ask their client when they're taking instructions; this should be part of our basic client care.

'When you meet the client in the cell find out: how have they got there; where are their family; are they on medication or should they be?'

There isn't a definitive answer on how to detect victims of slavery or trafficking, added Haughey, but the reality is that more needed to be done to detect the people at the bottom of the 'pyramid of offending'.

'We need to wake up and smell the coffee about who is doing the risky stuff. We all have a moral responsibility as criminal practitioners in the criminal justice system and as human beings to ensure it doesn't happen on our watch.'

Matthew Rogers is a legal reporter at Solicitors Journal'‚|'‚@lex_progress