What does the future hold for criminal lawyers?

After years of difficult funding cuts, and the extensive impacts of 18 months of pandemic lockdowns and restrictions, it’s easy to imagine that the future of the criminal law profession could be bleak. Stephen Halloran, Director and Solicitor Advocate at specialist criminal defence firm Lawtons, provides insight into the future of the industry and how these recent developments could impact current and prospective solicitors in years to come.

There is no doubt that the justice system in the UK is under considerable pressure. The Covid-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns have hit courts hard, causing a huge backlog of cases. Before the pandemic hit, there was already a backlog of 37,000 cases and as of  last July , the number had risen to 59,000.

Public confidence in the criminal justice system has plummeted in recent years, with the number of victims withdrawing their cases rising. Between 2014 and 2021, withdrawals of cooperation from victims have increased every year, rising from under 7% to nearly 22% in the seven-year period. According to a recent survey by the Victims’ Commissioner, a third of victims say they would not report a crime again due to poor experiences with the police and the long waiting periods for trials. If these trends continue, it raises concerns about guilty offenders not being apprehended and instead going on to commit further and more serious crimes. Equally, those that are innocent of crimes that they are being accused of feeling under pressure to plead guilty to offences they haven’t committed in order to bring their ordeal to an end.

The importance of criminal justice technology – how this could improve business processes

Few lawyers would deny that they haven’t always been at the forefront of embracing new technologies. Researchers and professional bodies such as the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the Law Society have acknowledged the wide array of opportunities for technological innovation within criminal justice, but also some barriers to their adoption. There are a number of areas of potential progress which have remained underdeveloped, but if greater attention is drawn to the ways technology can enhance criminal law, this could help propel the profession into the future.

However, there are concerns and challenges around the introduction of new technologies into criminal justice. For example, a lot of the information which criminal lawyers use every day is sensitive and confidential. Therefore, with cybercrime and security becoming more advanced, there will need to be extremely robust and sophisticated online security systems in order to prevent data from being stolen or leaked. There will also need to be strict codes of conduct surrounding data protection and how information can be appropriately shared between different parties, including the defence, prosecution, defendant, victim and the police. Suitable sanctions should be put in place to discourage unethical behaviour.

Technologies are also far from flawless, and there will have to be regular testing to ensure that the tools being used are functioning properly.

Data and information

Continued efforts are needed to keep improving information gathering and sharing practices, so that fewer trials are disrupted and abandoned because of a lack of essential information. Completing and managing the large volumes of paperwork, which have long been a feature of British courts, also takes up huge amounts of time and leaves margin for error.

Using digital systems to make data sharing easier and quicker could help to free up time for police, court staff and criminal lawyers, and allow cases to be processed faster. These systems could allow databases containing genetic information, motor vehicle registration and licensing information, criminal records and information about open cases to be quickly accessed from any location. Luckily, the Common Platform digital case management system was launched in 2020, to fulfil some of these functions, and the extension of projects like this will be vital in streamlining processes and making the justice system workable in the long term.

Machine learning

Machine learning and artificial intelligence solutions can help those working in criminal justice to produce information relating to cases that is potentially more accurate and less subjective than those provided by people. For example, these technologies can be used to analyse data collected from phone records to quickly and automatically find any patterns which may be of significance. It is also possible to use computer analysis when working with forensic evidence such as blood spatter patterns, and using these programs can reduce the biases or mistakes which can affect manual human examination.

Voice recognition and transcription software has also massively improved in accuracy and performance in recent years, and this can be used within criminal law to increase efficiency and keep accurate records. This could also mean using voice transcription to record meetings with clients, police interviews or even hearings. Then computer programs and algorithms could be used to search for specific elements within a transcription or to draw out and organise the important information. These technologies could therefore cut down on the time spent manually making notes, writing up reports and scanning through pages of information in order to find what’s relevant.

Remote hearings and flexible working

The movement to remote hearings shook up the court system during the pandemic and many criminal lawyers found themselves doing more remote and flexible working. This was enabled by digital technologies including video calling and streaming, cloud-based document storage systems and the digitalisation of large amounts of former paper records.

Despite many professional services companies, including some law firms, now urging employees to return to the office, research by Thomas Reuters has shown that lawyers are now keen to make the changes more permanent. Prior to the pandemic, only 22% of lawyers reported a desire for flexible working; now 63% say that they want more choice about their hours and ability to work remotely. Only 1 in 10 want to go back to working full time in the office, and results clearly suggest that accommodating the range of working preferences requires a high level of flexibility, with individuals more able to dictate their own schedules.

Remote hearings have long been discussed within the legal profession, but the pandemic has made them the everyday reality of most criminal lawyers. Remote proceedings have not been shown to have any significant impact on the ability of magistrates, judges or juries to make decisions and they provide time-saving benefits. Attending court remotely reduces the need for lawyers to travel back and forth between their homes, their offices and court. Furthermore, delays within the court system are often caused by failure by one of the relevant parties to attend court at the correct time, and since they can be attended from home, remote hearings can cut down on the frequency of such incidents.

Workload increase

Criminal lawyers have always been ready to work long hours in order to get the best possible outcomes for their clients, and this is unlikely to change. However, if technological advancements can be incorporated into legal processes, there is reason to believe that we could be working in a more efficient manner in the future. Many of the advantages for using technology within law are related to time saving. If paperwork and collecting information can be turned into a much faster digital process, this should free up time for lawyers, meaning they may be able to handle more cases. Remote hearings can also cut down on delays within the system, such as, for example, difficulties with getting all relevant parties in a courtroom on the same day.

This being said, without changes to funding, criminal lawyers, particularly those working on Legal Aid cases, will continue to see little reason for optimism and are likely to see their workloads continue to grow. To modernise the system will require investment, and with funding having been cut back so much over more than a decade, any sign of government commitment to such changes still seems far off.

Revenue shortfalls – are clients turning to technology?

Criminal law firms have, as expected, seen a fall in revenue during the pandemic. However, for some firms, this has been a particularly concerning time. Legal Aid firms, in particular, are struggling, with more than 70 closing between April 2020 and August 2021.

While it is hoped that the gradual return to normality will bring revenues back to pre-pandemic levels, there are still some ongoing concerns. With confidence in the criminal justice system low and many cases being withdrawn by victims, some firms may be considering how to gain the trust of clients and maintain financial viability.

Some clients have also been turning to online resources more in recent years, thanks to the huge amount of free legal education available on the internet. This has included ‘legal chatbots’ and similar resources, which allow access to 24/7 legal advice, usually at very low or no cost. For clients looking to avoid legal fees, using these tools minimises the time they spend speaking face-to-face with a lawyer. All of this does, of course, affect firms’ bottom lines.

Summary

During the pandemic, criminal lawyers have seen changes to working habits and relationships with technology, but it remains unclear whether these will be adopted long term. With funding cuts and a loss of public confidence also hitting the criminal justice system hard, it is clear that changes are needed to secure a sustainable future for criminal law. Fortunately, there are numerous opportunities to adjust working habits and use new and innovative technologies in order to increase efficiency and overcome key challenges.

While the current situation is far from ideal, if the government and the industry are willing to invest in modernising the system and developing new talent, there is no reason why the future for criminal lawyers can’t be a bright one.

 Stephen Halloran, Director and Solicitor Advocate at specialist criminal defence firm Lawtons

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