Anyone who is accused of a criminal offence has the choice of either hiring a criminal defence lawyer, or of representing themselves. Most people choose to hire a lawyer, but some choose not to. The reasons a person might choose to represent themselves are varied, and might include one or more of the following:
- They don’t feel the charges are very serious, so there doesn’t seem to be a need to hire a lawyer to help defend them.
- They don’t qualify for legal aid, but they also don’t make a huge amount of money. Trying to find a lawyer who charges low fees, or trying to get a court order to obtain funding from the Legal Services Society, takes too much effort.
- They feel they’re smart and motivated enough that they can learn what to do to defend themselves effectively.
- They had one or more lawyers, but were deeply dissatisfied with the service they received because the lawyer(s) wouldn’t do what they wanted. They ended up thinking “forget it, I don’t need a lawyer. They’re useless.”
Some people are able to effectively represent themselves when they’re charged with a simple offence, but the overwhelming majority of cases are best represented by a lawyer. Below are some of the advantages of having a lawyer:
- Lawyers know the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That means lawyers can identify if your rights were breached. They know how to leverage a breach of your rights into winning the case, or helping to reduce the punishment you would otherwise receive. In other words, if your rights were breached, lawyers know what to do about it. It’s also important to remember that lawyers know when your rights weren’t breached, or if your rights weren’t breached seriously enough that it will help you. Understanding which battles to fight is an important part of defending a criminal charge.
- Lawyers know the rules of evidence. That means lawyers can identify if there’s a problem with the evidence the Crown intends to rely on to prove their case against you. Lawyers can leverage problems with the Crown’s evidence to win the case or reduce the punishment you would otherwise receive.
- Lawyers know the participants in the justice system. That means we know the prosecutors. We know which ones are tough, and which ones offer the better deals. We talk to them all the time. We know what they care most about, and what doesn’t persuade them. We also know which judges are tough, and which are more lenient. We also know what persuades certain judges, and how they like to run their courtroom.
- Lawyers will represent you in court. When you hire a lawyer, you don’t have to go to court yourself. That means you don’t have to take a day off work for court, and you don’t have to go through the potential embarrassment of telling your employer why you need the time off. You also avoid the stigma of someone you wouldn’t want to tell about your criminal charge potentially seeing you in or around court.
- Lawyers know good defence strategy. Most people simply can’t instinctively understand effective advocacy and defence strategy without the experience that a criminal defence lawyer has gained. That includes everything from knowing whether the Crown can prove the case, how to leverage weaknesses in the Crown’s case for good plea offers, how to advocate effectively to mitigate a provable offence, and how to make effective legal arguments.
- Lawyers can talk to the prosecutor. This might seem obvious, but it’s a simple advantage lawyers have over those who represent themselves. We’re able to communicate to the prosecutor at every stage of the case. The accused simply doesn’t have this same benefit.
The truth is that a lawyer can nearly always make a difference, even in situations where the charge doesn’t seem so serious that the accused’s jeopardy isn’t so high. The consequences between certain outcomes can still be fairly important. For example, a defence lawyer may find a way to resolve a case where there’s overwhelming evidence of the client’s guilt without the client pleading guilty. A lawyer can also help ensure their client doesn’t end up with a criminal record, which has huge implications for work and travel purposes.
Although lawyers aren’t cheap, an accused who doesn’t qualify for legal aid but still wants a lawyer can sometimes find certain flexible fee arrangements. Limited retainer agreements are possible, where the lawyer doesn’t take the whole case but can help with the most essential parts of it. Flat-fee installment-based arrangements, rather than a full up-front cost, can also provide cost certainty and much-needed time to pay.
Sometimes lawyers offer advice that their clients don’t want to hear. It’s not usually a good idea to “shoot the messenger” because the lawyer gives their client bad news. Still, any relationship between lawyer and client is one of trust. If the client doesn’t trust the advice they’re receiving is fully fair, understandable, and accurate, they can always switch lawyers. But when two or more lawyers agree, it’s best to defer to the experts.
If you’re charged with a crime and are thinking about whether or not to hire a lawyer, consider the following things:
- How much money do you lose if you have to miss work to attend court? If you’re losing half a day of work, think about what that’s costing you in missed wages and subtract that from the legal fees you might pay.
- What do you think you might need a lawyer for? If you don’t need help navigating the system, but want to know how, for example, to get the best result at a sentencing hearing, then you might want to ask a lawyer for a fee for a memo on just that alone.
- What can you pay on a monthly basis? If you can only afford a modest amount, but can pay over many months, you might find a lawyer who’s willing to take the case on installments and with a flat fee.
If you’re certain you don’t need a lawyer, then don’t get one. But remember, a lawyer isn’t an all-or-nothing thing, and it doesn’t have to cost you an arm and a leg. You can still get a lawyer’s help for a limited purpose, and alternative fee arrangements are possible.