There is an old saying within the legal profession: “a person who represents himself has a fool for a client.” That’s true. And unfortunately, for many different reasons, self-represented accused are becoming more common than ever in the criminal justice system. I’ve witness people in the courtroom attempting to represent themselves on complicated and serious matters.
I can appreciate that lawyers are expensive. Legal Aid will only appoint an accused a lawyer if he meets certain financial criteria in limited circumstances. Due to a lawyer’s expense some people feel a lawyer is a waste of money or unnecessary. These people are wrong. Lawyers are essential to ensuing an accused person is not taken advantaged of.
An accused person can represent himself in court. But just because an accused can represent himself does not mean he will represent himself competently or effectively. Please consider these ten reasons before deciding if you want to be a self-represented accused.
(1) You are not a criminal defence lawyer. You have no idea what you are doing.
You may be an intelligent individual. Just because you are intelligent does not mean you know how to approach complicated and nuanced legal problems or form sound legal arguments. Going onto Google and searching how to defend a criminal charge will certainly give you back a lot of results. You can also search Google on how to golf and get back a lot of results. That won’t make you a good golfer. Some things require practice in order to become good at them.
I went to law school for three years. I went through the process of articling under the supervision of a senior lawyer before being called to the bar. I’ve dedicated an immense amount of time to become competent in the area of criminal law. To think you could have the same understanding of criminal law as I do is laughable. You have no idea what you are doing.
(2) In the Justice system only your lawyer cares about you.
The Justice system is designed to resolve disputes and to test and enforce laws in a fair and impartial manner. The process is adversarial in nature. The system works well when the Crown Attorney and defence are evenly matched.
The Crown Attorney is obligated to present their position fully, passionately, and skillfully. A skilled Crown Attorney will present every reason why their evidence ought to be accepted, every reason why you ought to be convicted and every reason why your defence ought to be rejected. You are no match for a Crown Attorney (see point 1).
The Court is only obligated to ensure you receive a “fair” trial. Fairness simply means allowing you an opportunity to present a defences. Court decisions are based on what the law says and what the evidence proves; there is no place in the courts for bias or favoritism. The judge cannot assist you with your defence. The Court is obligated to remain impartial.
(3) You don’t understand the consequences of a conviction.
When I meet with potential clients charges with impaired driving related offences, they have no idea what the possible consequences are of a conviction. They don’t understand pleading guilty to refusing to provide a breath sample rather than impaired driving will mean the province will take away their licence for two years rather than one year.
Without the knowledge of a criminal defence lawyer, it is near impossible to understand how far-reaching consequences of a criminal conviction are. Here are some examples that may not be immediately apparent:
Insurance rate increases;
Sex Offender Registry;
Civil and criminal forfeiture (seizure) of property;
Mandatory victim fine surcharges;
Probation conditions, including curfews;
These are but a few of the consequences that may not be apparent without the assistance of an experienced criminal defence lawyer. You will not understand what the consequences of a conditional discharge are on a criminal record check unless you have a thorough understanding of the law. It’s important you don’t make decisions that will seriously affect your life without being informed.
(4) You cannot negotiate with the Crown Attorney.
That’s right. You cannot effectively negotiate with the Crown Attorney. There is a level of respect that exists between Crown and Defence lawyers that you will not have. The Crown is aware that defence lawyers understand the law, appropriate outcomes of your case are and know how to argue in court.
Lawyers also get to know one another. A defence lawyer’s reputation is vital in their ability to negotiation with the Crown. Defence lawyers’ ongoing relationship with the Crowns forges trust and an understanding of each others’ ability. As an unrepresented accused, you have no knowledge or reputation. You have no understanding of what this Crown’s personality is like, their skills, or how they may view a case like yours.
If you say the wrong thing to the Crown, they may try to use it against you later at trial in order to see you convicted. Keep in mind the process is adversarial in nature. The Crown is not going to assist you when their objective is to see you conviction (see point 2).
(5) Lawyers, Crown Attorneys, Judges and the Police all hire a lawyer when they are charged.
When a lawyer, Crown Attorney, judge, or police officer is charged with a criminal offence, they hire a lawyer to represent them. Why? It doesn’t matter how knowledgeable you are about the law, criminal justice system, or rule of evidence, being a unrepresented accused at trial puts you at a great disadvantage.
Anyone familiar with the criminal justice system retains legal representation. Just as a dentist wouldn’t do work on themselves, a lawyer would not represent himself.
(6) Please do not confuse your Google search with my Law Degree.
A Google search is useful when you need to find the best place in the city for Chinese food take-out, or figuring out where you are going to take your vacation. However, the internet will not teach you how to play tennis, drive standard, or scuba dive. Some things in life require experience in order for you to become good at it.
Here are some basic questions a Google search will not provide you an answer to:
Do I set my matter down for a preliminary hearing or provincial trial?
Have the police breached my right, and if so, what does that mean for my case?
How do I draft my notice of motion?
You can spend ten hours looking up information about your charges online. All you find will be everything a lawyer already knows. It’s basic knowledge. Regardless of how many articles you read about defending criminal charges, your skill will never be that of a lawyer. A lawyer lives the law. It’s their bread and butter. The law is also dynamic and unpredictable. In court you will be required to react to situations that you did not research. The judge will not give you the time to pull out your smart phone in order to Google search an answer.
(7) Just because you committed the crime doesn’t mean the Crown can prove it.
You might think to yourself the case against me looks pretty strong, I should just plead guilty and save the cost of hiring a lawyer. WRONG. Police reports and narratives are written by officers who believe you are guilty, otherwise they would not have laid the charge. An lawyer knows what to look for. There is a difference between cases that are strong enough for charges to be laid and cases that are strong enough for judge to convict you at trial. There are trials everyday that don’t proceed because the Crown can’t make it’s case, even though on paper they are able.
(8) Just because you didn’t commit a crime doesn’t mean the Crown can’t ‘prove it’.
You might think to yourself that just because you didn’t commit the crime, you are safe from being wrongfully convicted. WRONG. Tunnel vision, eyewitness identification and testimony, false confessions, DNA evidence, forensic and medical experts, and ineffective assistance of counsel has lead to a a large number of wrongful convictions in Canada. To name just a few:
- James Driskell
- David Milgaard
- Guy Paul Morin
- Thomas Sophonow
- Steven Truscott
- Kyle Unger
- Simon Marshall
- Romeo Phillion
- Erin Walsh
They languished behind bars for years, wrongfully imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. Don’t add your name to the list.
(9) You don’t get to appeal just because you don’t like the decision.
When a judge renders a decision, it becomes set in stone. The legal system is designed with the idea of finality in mind. You don’t get to appeal the judge’s decision just because you don’t agree with it. There typically has to be an err in law. Even if there is an err in law, the appeal court may decide it wouldn’t make any difference to your case and dismiss your appeal anyways.
Appeals are also very complicated and expensive. It will cost you much more for an appeal than having a lawyer the first time around… I could write an entire blog post on this topic itself (see point 1). For your sake please do not put yourself in this position.
(10) Free Initial Consultation – You have nothing to lose.
Most criminal defence lawyers offer a free initial consultation. During this meeting I can discuss general issues with you so that you are in a better position to assess your risk, know your rights, and make an informed decision. You have nothing to lose, but your freedom and liberty. Call or contact me to set up an appointment today.