Defence duty: legal A&E? Q&A with Raheema Jamal
Q&A with Raheema Jamal, consultant criminal defence solicitor with London firm, Wainwright & Cummins LLP
Thank you for joining us to tell the readers more about what you do…
I’ve been a consultant solicitor with Wainwright & Cummins LLP in Brixton, London, for the past 10 years. I’m a duty solicitor at both the Magistrates’ Courts and police stations. I’m on the duty rotas predominantly covering south and central London. In this role, I’m also a court advocate dealing with a wide range of cases, from the police station through to the Youth Court or Magistrates’ Court. Prior to becoming qualified, I worked as a commercial litigation paralegal in Sydney, Australia, which I loved. I’m still trying to persuade Wainwright & Cummins to open up an office in Bondi!
What do you enjoy most about what you do?
Being a criminal defence solicitor is multi-faceted – and requires skills in many aspects of the job. At the police station, my role is to protect my client’s legal rights. This often involves robustly putting forward representations on behalf of my client, which doesn't always go down well with the police, particularly in interviews. In court, I enjoy the collaborative aspect of my job and working with the CPS, the court staff, the Probation Service, the Youth Offending Service and the Mental Health Team to obtain the best possible outcome for my clients. Representing both adult and youth clients on a wide range of offences keeps me interested and focused. No two days are ever the same!
What do you find most challenging about what you do?
Personally, getting up in the middle of the night to represent a client who has been arrested and is due to be interviewed at the police station – and then having to be at court representing clients in the morning – is the most challenging part of the job. Broken sleep and sleep deprivation impacts on our mental and physical health and also our family and friends’ time – yet duty criminal defence lawyers are willing to endure this, to provide a much needed service to the public.
Other challenging parts of the job include dealing with people who are at the lowest points in their lives. For some of our clients, it is the first time they have become involved in the criminal justice system and they therefore have huge anxiety and require support and guidance. We represent some clients when they are at their lowest. As solicitors, we have to deal with harrowing details of their life stories; drug abuse, alcohol dependency, etc. We have to be able to compartmentalise their personal anguish and not bring it home with us.
Many of our clients suffer from mental health issues – which brings its own difficulty in ensuring they are fairly dealt with at court. A large part of our job is akin to social services. We do a lot of work pro bono in order to assist our clients in their access to services issues, for example, with housing.
Another challenge we face is dealing with challenging clients, who may be obnoxious and rude – and yet still representing them to the same high standard as any other client.
Substantively, a common issue is having to deal with the late service of evidence, or alack of disclosure – and the difficulties it poses the defence.
Emotionally, a further challenge we encounter as professionals is dealing with offences which are of objectively uncomfortable subject matter – for instance, murder, or child sex offences – and being able to put your personal views aside and represent the client to the best of your ability. It should be remembered, in the nature of things, defence lawyers spend much more time than the police with the very worst and dangerous of criminals – but with none of the support they have available. It is extraordinary to consider we do all this – and for our pains and little money, we are still subject to abuse by political figures.
What led you to the role you’re in today?
A number of different contributing factors… Initially, a work experience placement in a busy criminal defence practice when I was 17 years old inspired me to become a criminal defence solicitor. My training contract included a seat in crime, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I had the opportunity of shadowing many talented defence solicitors and barristers. But learning on the job and becoming accredited as a duty solicitor has led to my job today. The 90s TV series, 'This Life' also whetted my appetite for a career in law!
What is a typical working day like for you?
As a duty solicitor at court, this is also varied, as it can be custody, bail, GAP (Guilty Anticipated Plea) or NGAP (Not Guilty Anticipated Plea). This involves representing clients who are not legally represented, but would like the benefit of advice and assistance from the Duty Solicitor who is independent of the court. The day varies according to how many people have been charged overnight or bailed to attend court that particular day. It is very time pressured, particularly if it’s a busy court, as the court are keen to progress cases quickly and efficiently. Some days, I’m both duty solicitor at court and at the police station. This involves more juggling and working in the evenings after court.
Are you involved in any charitable or pro bono work?
Vast quantities of our work are pro bono. It is in the nature of the job and the legal aid system.
Where do you see things hopefully heading in the next few years?
Ensuring the firm’s sustainability by encouraging the government to invest in the criminal justice system. Also encouraging the government and criminal justice system to use digital means of appearing in court and representing clients efficiently and effectively.
What are the main projects you are working on at the moment?
Encouraging the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association (LCCSA) to pursue working practices which protect lawyers and allow more efficient representation at the police station.
Which things would you most like to change in your sector, in an ideal (or more practical) world?
It is pivotal the government invest in the system now – it cannot be right that a victim of abuse may have to wait years to obtain justice in their case. Respect for all participants in the justice system is critical.
Also necessary are changes to the funding of courts, to allow more courts to sit. Many previously busy Magistrates’ Courts have sadly closed. These empty courts could have facilitated the undeniable backlog in processing cases expeditiously.
We also need more funding for advocates. At present, there are many matters that cannot be heard due to a lack of prosecutors. Additionally, it would help encourage lawyers to join the profession.
We should further continue to use digital means for routine court appearances – and, where appropriate, continue use of digital means to represent clients in the police station for minor offences.
Another area to consider is funding for the Probation Service to focus on rehabilitative practices – which will, in turn, reduce the cost to the public purse, as it will hopefully reduce the levels of recidivism. Similarly, funding for prisons would help ensure they are able to focus on rehabilitation of offenders whilst in custody – and support for offenders upon their release. Access to justice for all is the central principle to advocate.
What would your advice be to new starters to your role?
- You have to be dedicated to your clients and treat them as you would want to be treated by your representative.
- Remember your clients are people too, regardless of your personal feelings towards them.
- Think outside the box.
- You must have an eye for detail.
- Read everything at least twice.
- Do not think everything you do will result in the witness crumbling in tears and admitted they lied about the allegation – criminal practice is not like what you see on TV.
- Take every opportunity you have to read around the subject you are dealing with in your case in order to expand your knowledge.
- Talk about your cases with your colleague. Everyone has a different viewpoint and you may find a new angle or understanding of your case you had not thought of before.
- Play devil’s advocate – it is always good to put a prosecution hat on and consider what you would do if you were prosecuting this case. It allows you to be ready for any aspect that may be thrown at you or your client.
What one thing do you wish you’d known before now?
The lack of support and value the government has for defence lawyers, as illustrated by the vicious cuts to funding. When you consider the amount of work done, the travelling – and waiting times for each case, we often earn less than the minimum wage. This is clearly at odds and in direct contrast to our commercial counterparts in other areas of law and provokes a misconception that criminal lawyers are ‘fat cat lawyers’. Crime most certainly does not pay!
What do you do to ensure work-life balance when you’re not working?
I regularly practice yoga and pilates to keep both physically and mentally well. I enjoy socialising with friends and family. I love to travel – and am fortunate to have good friends and family who live in some exotic countries, including Canada and Australia. From a creative perspective, I am a supporting artiste and have appeared in TV commercials including Compare the Market and Gillette. I have also appeared in Comic Relief does ‘The Bodyguard’ acting as a government aide alongside Richard Madden – and Danny Boyle’s film ‘Yesterday’.
What are your hopes for the future in your own sector (and field of influence)?
- Immediate implementation of the Criminal Legal Aid Review (CLAR) Report.
- Funding to the courts to clear the huge backlog of cases going through the courts
- Funding to encourage people to join the profession. The average age of a duty solicitor, is I understand, 50 – so once people start to retire, there will be a void in defence representation.
- A return to training grants to enable us to attract young, ambitious, students to the profession.
A developing problem for legal aid firms is people joining the CPS, having completed their training contract in private practice. With the current financial arrangements, it is not possible for firms to compete with the CPS on salary and other benefits – particularly pension provision. It is simply wrong that firms are incurring the expense of training CPS lawyers.
Which key issues matter to you?
To conclude, in my mind, it remains critical that respect for the rule of law be taught at schools – and the government be encouraged to ensure the media fully understand its role in our democracy.
Equally as importantly, we must encourage the public to see all sides of the criminal justice system – and the impact of the lack of funding and delays on all parties – victims, witnesses and defendants alike.
Lastly, we should be encouraging everyone to appreciate the need for a fair criminal justice system as being a vital and necessary part of society.
Raheema Jamal, consultant solicitor with London firm Wainwright & Cummins LLP, was interviewed by Chaynee Hodgetts, Features & Opinion Editor and Mature Pupil Barrister with Nexus Chambers: wainwrightcummins.co.uk