I practiced business law for 40 years. I never knew much about criminal law. In fact, I knew so little about the subject that I used to tell my clients that if they got arrested, they probably should not use their one phone call to call me because all that I could do for them in their hour of need would be to incorporate a company.
Not that I never met any criminals while practicing business law, but at least in my line of work, the criminals were well dressed, polite and drove nice cars. But I digress.
Nonetheless, my clients often did call me when they or a family member were arrested. I would tell them the only thing that I knew about criminal law, which was to say nothing to the police until they had spoken to a criminal lawyer, no matter how innocent they thought that they were.
Then, I would refer them to the best criminal lawyer who I knew and tell them that this was not the time to shop based on price.
You would think that someone who knew as little about criminal law and criminal lawyers as I do would have nothing to say on the subject. Strangely enough, that is not the case. I do have a few things to say about criminal lawyers.
First, they have a tough job. Often under-compensated. And, they spend a great deal of time with criminals, which is not always an up-lifting experience. On top of that, they are constantly being vilified by people who should know better, just for doing their jobs.
Second, criminal lawyers are the most under-appreciated members of the Bar, and that is really saying something.
Years ago, I decided to stay at the Sheraton Hotel in Toronto across from City Hall for a weekend, take in a show, go to a fine dinner, and pretend that I was more successful than I was.
My wife and I had a great room facing City Hall and a close-up view of a demonstration taking place at City Hall. The demonstration related to political events in Cambodia and the demonstrators were carrying signs voicing their complaints. One of the signs said: “They took away our lawyers.”
Although the signs were cryptic, it was clear that these people were not complaining that there was no one available to incorporate companies for them. They were protesting the very real consequences of a society where criminal lawyers are not available to protect their freedom.
Whenever I hear people complain about criminal lawyers defending unpopular defendants, I always think that they just do not get it. What they do not get is that it is largely because of criminal lawyers that most of us can walk down the street and encounter a police officer without fear that we will be dealt with in an arbitrary manner. (Of course, it is a tragedy that not all of us can do that, and that those who cannot do so are too often visible minorities, but that is a topic for another day.)
We all know the famous saying that ‘power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ I have no axe to grind with respect to the police, nor do I have any personal insight on the police to share, either positive or negative. However, it does not take a genius to know that if you vest anyone with power, authority and guns and leave them unchecked, bad things will happen. It is the job of criminal lawyers to try to make certain that there are consequences when the police screw up. Criminal lawyers play a crucial role in providing a disincentive for the police (and other authorities) to do things that they should not do.
I have always been astounded that so many otherwise intelligent people do not understand the crucial role that criminal lawyers play in defending our freedoms, and levy criticism against them when they do their job of making prosecutors prove their cases beyond a reasonable doubt and play by the rules. For this reason, I was shocked, but unfortunately not surprised, when a local Toronto school board revoked an invitation for a prominent criminal lawyer to speak to a group of students because she successfully defended a high-profile defendant against charges relating to his sexual conduct (a decision that the school board subsequently reversed after a public outcry).
When even our educators just don’t get it, what hope do we have that the general population will understand?
I have personally never had a run-in with the police, and I hope that I will never have one. But I can tell you that if I ever do find myself accused of a crime, I hope that the criminal lawyers are still around and that the freedoms that they protect are still in place. And for those of you who smugly think ‘it can never happen to me’ and therefore feel that jumping on the anti-criminal lawyer bandwagon will never bite you in the ass, I can only say: “You are complete and utter fools.” Of course, I mean that in the most respectful way possible.