“My daddy is an actor. Sometimes he plays the good guy. And sometimes he plays the lawyer.”
Malcolm Ford, son of actor Harrison Ford, speaking at a school careers day.
Harrison Ford’s young son was speaking innocently when he made this comment on his father’s movie choices, but for those intending to be scornful, legal professionals make an easy target.
Do they make a fair one? On May 16th our lawyers and judges will take to the streets of London for the twelfth annual Legal Walk. Covering 10 kilometres, this sponsored event will raise money to provide free legal services to those in need. This year, with legal aid cuts having taken representation away from many of our most vulnerable citizens, the cause could hardly be worthier, and the event could hardly be better timed.
Only last week the charity Transform Justice issue a wide ranging report questioning the outcome of cuts to legal aid. “Justice Denied” painted a vivid picture of ordinary citizens trying and failing to represent themselves adequately in court. In one of the most telling passages, we are told of “unrepresented defendants not understanding what they were charged with, pleading guilty when they would have been advised not to, and vice versa, messing up the cross-examination of witnesses, and getting tougher sentences because they did not know how to mitigate.”
Is this a surprise? Can we really expect untrained, unqualified individuals to represent themselves adequately in a highly-charged courtroom setting? As well as technical knowledge and experience, skilled advocates bring a calm, dispassionate approach to a case. Would a person arguing in their own divorce or custody dispute be equally objective?
Lawyers aren’t the only professionals having to cope with the rise of the “Do It Yourself” service. Translators face it every day.
While Agile Machine Translation offers an increasingly effective complement to human ingenuity, translating a legal document on a free online site is about as good an idea as defending yourself in a murder trial.
Legal translation involves taking a message not only between languages but between legal systems whose core principles may be radically different. The nuance and flow of the language can only be captured by a skilled linguist; just as the nuance and flow of a courtroom argument needs the attention of a trained advocate. Malcolm Ford may not have appreciated his father’s courtroom cameos, but real-life officers of the courtroom play a vital role, and they do it with diligence and integrity.
When lawyers speak out against self-representation they’re not doing it out of self-interest. They are voicing concerns that justice may be compromised by corner cutting.
The many organisations benefiting directly from this year’s Legal Walk include a range of child poverty action movements, immigrant support units and centres providing aid to the elderly. Last year’s walk raised over £700,000, and hopes are high that this year’s will do even better. Our lawyers and judges are standing up for what they believe to be right, and literally walking the extra mile to help those in need.
We can’t all be Indiana Jones or Han Solo, but when legal professionals assemble on May 16th they’ll have every right to call themselves the good guys.