This issue, Chaynee Hodgetts interviews Simon Natas FRSA
CH: Thank you for making time to speak with us, Simon! Please tell us about your firm and current practice?
SN: We founded ITN Solicitors almost twenty years ago. When we began, the firm focussed exclusively on criminal defence work and we are now one of the largest criminal firms in London, with branch offices in Oxford, Birmingham and Manchester. Over time, we have expanded into other areas of law, opening new departments dealing with family law, immigration, actions against the police and prison law. We have always had a strong human rights focus and many of our cases are politically sensitive or involve national security issues.
CH: What type of work do you usually do?
SN: I am primarily a criminal practitioner and I regularly act for clients charged with homicide, drug supply or firearms offences. However, I also specialise in protest law – and much of my time is now taken up with defending activists, many of whom are associated with groups such as Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil or the campaign against HS2. The most common offences I deal with are aggravated trespass, highway obstruction, criminal damage and breaches of the Public Order Act 1986. I conduct most of my own trial advocacy, usually in the Magistrates’ Court and sometimes in the Crown Court. The work is always rewarding - the cases are legally complex and the clients are a joy to represent.
CH: What is your position on the more recent developments in protest law?
SN: The UK is becoming a more hostile place for people who wish to exercise their rights to freedom of expression and association (Articles 10 and 11 of the ECHR). The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, includes various provisions which limit protest rights, for example, by expanding the power of the police to impose conditions on demonstrations, or to prohibit them entirely. However, the government’s Public Order Bill, which is currently making its way through parliament, is far worse. As well as creating a whole raft of new offences, the Bill introduces ‘serious disruption prevention orders’ which could lead to the electronic tagging of protesters. I find this frankly dystopian – and hope that it does not become law.
CH: Which areas of law do you think will develop most in 2023?
SN: There are bound to be developments in the law around the exercise of Article 10 and 11 rights. The Supreme Court case of Ziegler v DPP  UKSC 23 was a landmark case which expanded the protections for protestors accused of obstructing the public highway. It turned out to have much wider application, for example in relation to the policing of demonstrations during covid-19 lockdown. More recently, the courts have narrowed the scope of Ziegler, for example, in Attorney General’s Reference (No. 1 of 2022)  EWCA Crim 1259 which followed the acquittals of the Colston Four. However, lawyers who act for protesters will need to rely on authority from the European Court of Human Rights more than ever in the coming year, particularly if some of the worst provisions in the Public Order Bill become law. The courts will almost certainly have to consider whether some of these are compatible with Convention rights and I hope that they will be robust in doing so.
CH: Please tell us about some of your most interesting cases…
SN: Criminal practitioners are very fortunate in that few of our cases are boring, but that can make it difficult to pick out the most interesting. Some recent highlights include acting for a number of Stop HS2 protesters, amongst them the veteran eco-campaigner, Swampy, who constructed a network of tunnels under a park near Euston Station and occupied them for more than a month. They were acquitted at trial, but the Crown Prosecution Service successfully challenged the judge’s decision in the High Court –and we have now been sent back to start all over again. I also recently defended activists who poured red paint over the Brazilian Embassy in an attempt alert the world to the damage being done to the rainforests under President Bolsonaro – that involved obtaining a report from one of the country’s leading experts on politics and ecology in Brazil. My protest law practice often requires me to explore international law issues, the politics of other countries or areas of law which criminal lawyers don’t ordinarily encounter – for example, the regulations protecting wildlife in the UK. I had to develop a good understanding of the latter while defending numerous clients over the past couple of years who have tried to prevent the felling of trees for the purposes of the HS2 scheme.
CH: How did you become a solicitor?
SN: I grew up in the 1980s, when news about miscarriages of justice were quite often covered in the mainstream media, much more so than today. I’m sure many of your readers will recall Rough Justice, a BBC documentary programme devoted to investigating wrongful convictions, which was shown on prime-time TV. Later in the decade, the campaigns to free the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six became increasingly prominent and the lawyers who worked to free them were an inspiration. I went to the College of Law in 1992 to study for what was then known as the Common Professional Examination – and was the only person in my class who wanted to be a legal aid solicitor. There were very few legal aid firms in London who advertised for trainees – and they didn’t tend to employ people straight out of college so I ended up working for almost two years as a freelance court clerk and police station representative, before finally getting a training contract at a firm in Camden and eventually qualifying in 1998. While it felt like a long journey at the time, I am now aware that everyone needs that kind of experience before starting as a trainee in a legal aid practice – you are expected to hit the ground running!
CH: What is a typical working day like for you?
SN: There is no typical working day for a criminal solicitor. I love being on my feet, whether it is in the Crown Court or the Magistrates’ Court. I could be conducting hearings on a murder case in the Old Bailey one morning and legal argument in a protest case the next day. The job also involves lots of paperwork which I juggle between management duties, client meetings and trying to find time for lunch. My work is focussed in London, but it has taken me to courts all over the country, so I might get the chance to catch up with some reading on a long train journey.
CH: What do you enjoy most about your job?
SN: I don’t think that anything in this job compares to the feeling you get when you win a trial. More generally my job gives me the opportunity to meet an unusually diverse range of people and to help them a time of crisis in their lives. That is hugely rewarding.
CH: What do you find most challenging about your job?
SN: The pressures involved in running a legal aid practice in the face of years of cuts to the legal aid budget.
CH: Are you involved in any charitable or pro bono work?
SN: I give pro-bono advice to a number of community groups and campaigning organisations - for example, JENGbA, which campaigns on behalf of prisoners convicted under the joint enterprise laws, and the Haringey Stop and Search Monitoring Group.
CH: What’s your position on mental health for lawyers?
SN: There is no doubt that the job we do can be very pressurised. From a management point of view, the key to limiting stress is effective supervision and management of workloads. Nobody should be made to work on cases that are beyond their capacity or experience and while we all need to work long hours from time to time, no one should be working late into the night or at weekends on a regular basis. It is impossible to underestimate just how much smartphones have changed our working lives - it is a constant battle to carve out a space outside of work. Simple steps, like reminding staff not to send emails unnecessarily out of office hours, can help, but we are continuously looking for new ways to support our staff.
CH: What do you do to ensure work-life balance when you're not working?
SN: Plenty of exercise, crosswords, following Arsenal and cooking for my family.
CH: What’s your proudest achievement?
SN: In 2016, I acted for JENGbA as interveners in the Supreme Court case of R v Jogee  UKSC 8, an historic case which reformed the law on joint enterprise. This followed many years of campaigning on the issue. Two years later, I represented John Crilly, the only person to have an historic murder conviction quashed following the change in the law (R v Crilly  EWCA Crim 168).
CH: What one thing do you wish you'd known before now?
SN: That no matter how senior you are, your workload will never reduce – if anything, it will get bigger.
CH: What one thing do most people not know about you?
SN: I took up running during lockdown – and even managed to run a half-marathon last year.
CH: What’s next for you?
SN: A criminal solicitor can never really predict what’s around the corner – one phone call can lead to a new case, which takes over a year of your life. However, I am sure that there will be a lot more climate activism to come this year – and I suspect that might occupy quite a lot of my time.
Simon Natas FRSA, partner at ITN Solicitors, was interviewed by Chaynee Hodgetts, our outgoing features & opinion editor and barrister with Libertas Chambers: itnsolicitors.com
Features and Opinion Editor