Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Effective and fair justice means that even Stuart Hazell gets a defence lawyer

Stuart Hazell has spent 9 months denying the murder of Tia Sharp. He also spent just over four days of his trial for that offence claiming not to be guilty. On the fifth day, Hazell changed his plea to guilty and has now been sentenced to 38 years in prison. 

Like most child murders, the case has captured the public's attention. As such, it provides a good test of the argument that all those accused of crimes - even the guilty - need to have a defence representative. To most laymen, this would seem hard to justify in the case of Hazell.

He has systematically lied about the death of his partner's granddaughter. It has become clear that Hazell was sexually attracted to Tia Sharp  - another element of the case which fuels public horror, and rightly so. Hazell went to some lengths to conceal his crime by hiding the body in a neighbour's attic.

Now, after five days of legal proceedings - painful for the victim's family and at a cost to the taxpayer - Hazell has admitted his case is a lie. His timing of plea is unusual; defendants that have resolved to protest their innocence and allowed the trial to start normally see it through to the end. 

Beyond the motivation to plead guilty early for ethical reasons, defendants are given the incentive of sentence discounts for admitting an offence before the trial. Hazell will of course get no such credit now. As such, Hazell's decision raises some thoughts - did he have inadequate advice from his lawyers about the evidence or proceedings? Did he ignore their advice? Or has he made an unpredictable decision?

Hazell claims that the decision is motivated by a desire to end the suffering of Tia Sharp's family. Whether this is true or not, the unique pain of listening to the forensic dissection of your loved one's death could have been avoided. This is an important reason why Hazell should have good quality defence representation.

A defence lawyer has a paramount duty to protect their client's interests; however, this does not (as is often thought) inevitably mean fighting for their acquittal until the bitter end. Most defence lawyers would likely say that when their client insists on their innocence or has a compelling defence, there is little question about advancing a not guilty case.

However, they would also say that where the prosecution evidence is substantial or the defendant's story doesn't wash, they would probably advise them that it was in their interests to plead guilty - they will save themselves, the victim or victims, and witnesses some pain; the Court some time and money; and earn a sentence discount.

In the case of Stuart Hazell, dependent on the evidence before them, it would seem likely that an effective representative would have advised him to change his plea prior to the trial. Such a quick u-turn suggests that it dawned on Hazell that either he was doomed or that he was prolonging the agony of people he once loved. A defence lawyer is often essential to making a defendant have such realisations at the right time.

This demonstrates how defence lawyes can enhance effective justice. Hazell may not have known or trusted his lawyers, but in general many defence lawyers have 'repeat' clients who they have an established relationship with. This personal connection and the local knowledge that goes with it is crucial to effective and efficient delivery of justice.

Therefore, defence lawyers arguably save the court and the taxpayer time and money when necessary. Even if this weren't the case, had Hazell proceeded to plead his innocence (bearing in mind we now know him to be guilty) it is also fair that he have a defence lawyer to protect his interests and advance his case.

Until he confessed or was convicted, Hazell was an innocent man. Criminal liability is only acceptable when proven beyond reasonable doubt by the prosecution. Without a defence lawyer, Hazell (a man who seems unlikely to be capable of running an effective defence autonomously) would likely face a prosecution case free from any robust challenge, resulting in conviction.

If a prosecution case untested by a skilled defence professional - perhaps built of questionable evidence, omissions, assumptions or dressed with persuasive rhetoric - is sufficient for proving guilt, then arguably, in practice, the burden of proof is lowered. Reasonable doubt becomes acceptable because the prosecution no longer needs to go beyond it.

Any legitimate prosecution must be able to withstand the strength of opposing arguments - and the burden of proof is always the prosecution's. Had Hazell not had a defence lawyer, the prosecution could simply have presented a bare minimum should it wish to, perhaps convincing a jury of laymen with the oratory and spin that defence lawyers are often associated with.

If one tennis player walks onto the court to find his opponent missing, the game might well be forfeit in his favour. But that is no true victory and no guarantee that the winner was truly better than the absent opponent. The same principle applies here.

Stuart Hazell has confessed to his crime and justice has been done, but not as effectively as it could have been. Had he insisted on a full trial, would we not want him to be convicted of murder - the worst of crimes -  with proper evidence, tested and tried, or would we prefer the show trial of a folk devil?

Defence lawyers are important - even for those we hate. Not just because it's fair, but because it is effective.

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