How lawyers navigate the ‘interesting and unusual’ world of criminal law
The criminal justice system and the role of criminal lawyers are chaotically busy, majorly rewarding, consistently surprising – and often completely misunderstood. To get to the bottom of what criminal law is about, Lawyers Weekly spoke to an accredited specialist in criminal law to break down ethics, media and what future lawyers should expect.
At just 29, senior associate at Armstrong Legal and accredited criminal law specialist, Trudie Cameron, has already had a big career in criminal law. She says for as long as she can remember, she has been drawn to a career in criminal law: “My mind was made up my very first semester. I knew criminal law was where I wanted to practice.”
“To me, criminal law was by far the most interesting,” Ms Cameron tells us. “It seemed to come naturally as it meant working with – and helping – real people through difficult times. This kind of work has always appealed to me, much more so than working for firms which service businesses, large corporations or government.”
Criminal law is not just about the casework and the chaotic courtrooms, it’s helping the clients that have been convicted for major crimes. Yes, sometimes they are guilty – but there are a lot of times when they aren’t, and defending them isn’t always easy. However at the end of it all, Ms Cameron says she is most thankful for the people.
Ms Cameron has celebrated many major career achievements over the course of her time practicing in criminal law, including being recognised by the Law Society of NSW as an accredited specialist in criminal law. She says receiving this recognition was big and that she is “very humbled by the recognition”. This recognition, by one of the major legal bodies in Australia, is not all that makes criminal law so rewarding.
“I am most proud of the work I’ve done helping people through what’s often among the most difficult, traumatic and awful times in their lives,” Ms Cameron says.
More recently, a jury returned a verdict of not guilty for a client she has acted for over a number of years. She says the case was “tragic all round”, and the kind words offered after the case had ended had made years of hard work all the more worth it.
“The words shared with my client, as well as with their mother and partner, after court meant so much to me, especially after the days, weeks and months of hard work that was put into the matter,” Ms Cameron says. “This case was not my biggest nor most momentous, but it is one of many that have seen me achieve a lot – in a professional legal sense, but also in being able to assist my clients.”
In the wake of 2019, which saw a trip to the High Court and her recognition, her goals for 2020 are: “Keep learning, keep doing and most importantly, keep doing better.”
How to ‘keep doing better’ in the modern age of criminal law
Criminal law is very busy. So busy that there is a strain on resources. In terms of global impact, the biggest difficulty is how the court system manages its workload. The local courts and district courts are inundated with work and there are often significant delays due to not having enough judges or lawyers to deal with the workload efficiently.
And it isn’t just the criminal lawyers coping with the lack of appropriate resources. The Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), judges and magistrates are getting to court each day with mountains of workload, and it never lets up.
That’s not to say criminal law will always be a tense process. Oftentimes, Ms Cameron says she’s sitting idle and waiting for the system to catch up.
“Obviously, the criminal justice system is centred around availability of the judge and the magistrate and there isn’t a lot of situations where a judge or magistrate is left idle without any work to do, which sometimes means you are waiting for hours on end for their attention to have your matter heard,” Ms Cameron explains.
Having said this, however, Ms Cameron says “there’s never really a dull moment” and there is plenty of work outside the courtroom to keep criminal lawyers busy: “It’s forever interesting and unusual the things that pop up in your day-to-day work.”
Ms Cameron notes there are two big trends that will keep criminal lawyers busy in 2020, and the criminal law system should be on notice for the changes to kick in.
“With lockout laws being relaxed, a spike in alcohol and drug-related crime in Sydney’s CBD can be expected,” Ms Cameron says. “In a business sense, the online presence of criminal law firms will continue to expand, particularly in relation to social media.”
And once they have the case, how long do they last? Ms Cameron says if it’s a pretty straightforward drink driving or local court sentence, the case can be over in weeks. If it’s something like a district court trial, criminal lawyers are looking at working on it from anything between 18 months to two years. And of course, if it then goes through appeal stages, it can be “years and years and years” before the case ends.
For example, Ms Cameron says her biggest matter is still ongoing: “It has been going on since 2012, which is before I started practice. I came into the matter in my first year of practice, which was about six years ago.” She was working on the case with a team of six, counting the co-accused’s own solicitors and barristers.
“At trial, and in relation to my client, it’s me instructing a barrister, but there was another solicitor and another barrister also involved for a co-accused. When it got to appellant stages, there were two barristers each. So, I instructed two barristers in relation to the appeal and then the other co-accused also had two barristers as well,” she says.
The advice she most often gives her clients is to tell police their name and address. It is also helpful to politely decline any questions: “Do not answer any questions and do not make any statements when you are being recorded. Do not give an interview. If it is in your interest to do so, we can do it at a later time,” Ms Cameron says.
As for her own preparation methods when taking on a new case, Ms Cameron pointed out that criminal law can be very complicated and it depends on the type of matter and criminal and evidentiary issues that will likely arise from the case.
“The most important part of taking on a new matter is establishing a relationship with the client and ensuring they understand what they are charged with (or what charges they may be facing), the court process and the course their matter will likely take,” she says.
Handling clients while juggling misconceptions around truth and ethics
There are many misconceptions in the area of criminal law – namely, a lack of morality and ethics, especially considering the heavy and sensitive case material. To make this more stressful, criminal lawyers are also often accused of lying for their clients and of having no emotional reaction to the particularly heinous and upsetting crimes.
And this is not just from the media and from the public in general. Ms Cameron says it comes from her clients and other lawyers too. However, she adds that much like Jim Carrey in the movie “Liar Liar”, Ms Cameron “can’t lie”. And she won’t do it for her clients.
On how she breaks down the morality of the role, Ms Cameron says: “At the outset of most new relationships, I take time to explain my professional duties.”
“Firstly, I explain that I have a duty to act in my client’s best interests (as well as a duty of privilege). Secondly, I explain that I also have a duty to the court and that this duty is paramount. I explain that this duty to the court means that I can’t mislead the court, which includes tendering or leading evidence which I know to be untrue or false,” she says.
But what about when a client approaches her, admits to guilt and then asks for her aid in lying to the courts for a lighter – or possible non-existent – sentence?
“I explain to clients that if they tell me they did something, but tell me they want to give evidence and tell the courts that they didn’t, then I will be conflicted out and cannot act for them. I do, however, explain the concept of putting the prosecution to strict proof,” Ms Cameron says.
The clients of criminal lawyers and the trials by media
Perhaps more so than most areas of the law, the relationship between criminal lawyers and the media is often fraught with tension. A lot of the time, this is judged by whether or not the courts decide to allow the media to disclose the identity of the accused. This typically follows a process of determining whether it is in the public interest to know.
There are several exceptions in this, which shields particular parties from being named – one such exception is defamation, where a publication implies guilt. Another concern is on the identification of children, which, under law, cannot be disclosed or published in sexual assault cases or in AVO proceedings until the cases are finalised.
For the likes of many convicted criminals accused of the greatest of crimes – from rape to murder – this never means a light sentence from the public. Even if accused is found not guilty, in most cases, this is not mirrored in the media. Sometimes the damage has been done. After all, Cardinal George Pell isn’t shaking off his media sentence.
So, what is there to do when you’re a criminal lawyer with a highly infamous client and their alleged crimes are splashed across front pages? Ms Cameron says media interest in a case is so difficult that in this day and age, “an online article can be more damaging than a criminal history check from an employer perspective”.
When this becomes an issue, Ms Cameron says: “It’s best to advise your client fully on the impact of media attention and what to expect.
“Explaining to a client that running down the street with your face covered by a jumper is a poor choice or that agreeing to an interview with A Current Affair may not go so well is not strictly legal advice, but I find that it is helpful,” Ms Cameron says.
How to cope with a career in criminal law
In criminal law, it is not uncommon to come across distressing images, transcripts and other pieces of evidence that relate to a particularly sensitive case. These materials in courtrooms are such a common fixture that it can lead to emotional stress.
Ms Cameron says her favourite part about working in criminal law is the people working with her at Armstrong Legal. She says she feels fortunate enough to be part of a great team that she enjoys working closely with: “My colleagues are not only brilliant at what they do, but they make coming into work easier.”
“The criminal law industry is tight-knit and very supportive of one another. What we do can be extremely difficult at times and the ability to walk into a different court everyday and see the same friendly faces makes a big difference. Defence lawyers in particular have a great community both online and at court. We often reach out to one another for help or assistance and know there’s always a shoulder to lean on,” she says.
This team environment makes unwinding at the end of a major case all the more easier with Ms Cameron crediting friendly faces, “often paired with a nice wine”.
“It’s regular for the team to share in its successes, as well as the difficult days. I always try to keep the work-life balance somewhat in check and have a good exercise routine to match. I find it helps me keep on top of the stress levels as well as the emotional toll the job can take, whether it’s highs or low,” Ms Cameron says.
“It can be, and often is, horrific, upsetting and damaging,” Ms Cameron says, on working in criminal law, noting that her colleagues outside of law helps her too.
“I find the police we work with often are great and intentionally minimise our exposure. When not possible, downtime and leaning on loved ones [are] important. There’s no absolute fix though,” she says.
What to keep in mind if pursuing a criminal law career
For young students, graduates and junior lawyers – or even those that are already set in the profession – that are considering a career in criminal law, Ms Cameron says it’s important to get your foot in the door with any opportunity and to take it from there.
“Criminal law can be one of the most difficult industries to get a start in. I worked for a barrister for free for a period of time, and also did an internship with a reputable firm,” she says. “Even these can be hard to get. Once you’ve got your foot in the door – and provided you’re willing to work very hard – the career should follow.”
In terms of keeping up with the competitiveness of the criminal law career, she said it is important that lawyers are “marketing themselves intelligently as well”.
“It’s a big area, it’s competitive but if you have the skill set and an unrestricting practice certificate, you are able to do reasonably well at starting your own firm and there are opportunities for smaller firms as well to get your foot in the door so to speak,” she says.
It’s also interesting to note the practice areas of criminal law that are becoming more and more relevant now, making it easier for lawyers to get started. Ms Cameron says it is particularly interesting to see how the lay of the land has changed in terms of social media and the criminal law that comes into effect on these platforms.
“There are a lot of smaller firms which you see there’s a structure where there’s one or two solicitors and then the support staff, that sort of crop up and break off from some of the larger firms, and they can do relatively well for either the legal aid work, which is difficult but there is certainly a capacity there,” Ms Cameron says.