Criminal lawyers deal with all aspects of the Criminal Justice System.
Criminal law is centered on preventing and punishing conduct that is or could be threatening, harmful or dangerous to the public, property or moral welfare.
A criminal lawyer will advise and appear in court on behalf of either the defence (the accused) or the prosecution (the accuser).
There are three categories of criminal offences in the U.K:
1. Summary Offences
2. Either Way Offences
3. Indictable Only Offences
Summary offences can only be tried at the Magistrates' Court (except where the offence is linked to a more serious offence that has been sent to the Crown Court).
Examples of summary offences include:
most driving offences (except dangerous driving or where a fatality has occurred)
common assault involving minor injury
The maximum sentence that can be imposed on an adult defendant for a single offence is 6 months' imprisonment and/or a fine.
Solicitors will generally represent their clients in the Magistrates Court (i.e. not use a barrister).
Either Way Offences
Essentially, 'either way' means the offence can be dealt with in either the Magistrates Court or the Crown Court.
The range of offences are wide and can include:
Possession of drugs
Possession with intent to supply drugs
Actual Bodily Harm (ABH)
These types of cases are first heard in the Magistrates Court. The court will then decide if it has sufficient sentencing powers for the case. If not, the case is sent to the Crown Court (where they have greater sentencing powers!).
Indictable Only Offences
Indictable only offences are the most serious offences and they are only dealt with in the Crown Court.
The accused will first appear in the Magistrates Court as a matter of procedure but the case is immediately sent to the Crown Court.
If the case goes to trial, a jury will decide the defendant's innocence or guilt but the judge always decides the sentence.
Typical tasks of a criminal lawyer...
Attend police stations to support and advise clients in police custody.
Visit clients in prison (either because a client is serving a sentence or remanded in custody) to discuss their case.
Assess and advise clients on the strength of a criminal case against them.
Represent clients at sentencing hearings.
Solicitors tend to represent their clients at Magistrates Court and barristers will represent clients at Crown Court.
Regularly liaise with clients, Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), witnesses, probation officers etc.
Deal with a large caseload with a fast turnaround.
Review lots of documents and evidence to build a defence and case strategy.
Evidence gather and research case law and legislation.
Skills required to be a criminal lawyer...
Excellent communication skills (both verbal and written) - you'll definitely be doing lots of advocacy, even as a solicitor, so it's important to be able to communicate effectively.
Great attention to detail and very analytical.
Ability to think on your feet and be tactical - your first meeting with a client might be at a police station where you'll have very little information but still expected to advise.
Confidence - you'll be dealing with a range of characters!
Ability to handle a heavy workload and thrive under pressure.
Good at research! You need to investigate a case inside out to make sure you build the best defence for your client.