For the Defence: Lawyers who advocate for the accused

May 10, 2018
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If you're known for the company you keep, what's the average person going to think if you spend your professional life speaking on behalf of killers, thieves and the like?

For lawyers, those assessments can be swift and harsh, particularly when they represent someone accused of a terrible act. They can be perceived as defending the indefensible, and by extension standing between a culprit and the justice the community desires.

But lawyers who represent those accused of crimes -- including those implicated in heinous acts -- are working to ensure the integrity of our justice system, according to Sasha Baglay, an associate professor with the Faculty of Social Science and Humanities and Director of the Legal Studies Program with the University of Ontario Institute of Technology.

"They are not defending what has been done," she said. "What they are doing is making sure the system works the way it has to. It is merely making the prosecution do its job."

The "immense power" wielded by the state requires lawyers on both sides of our adversarial justice system to ensure all rights of the accused are observed, Baglay said. For defence lawyers, that means working diligently to protect a client's rights. "They have to be a zealous advocate," Baglay said.

Criminal defence lawyer David Hodson is aware lawyers can be perceived as villains when they choose to defend unsavoury clients. However, he sees the role of the defence lawyer as pivotal in safeguarding the rights Canadians enjoy.

"Any lawyer going into criminal law knows there will be times in their career when they'll be dealing with nasty individuals," Hodson said. "They have a duty and an obligation to serve these clients and to provide full answer and defence.

"I'm often asked: How can you represent a person like that?" Hodson said. "But I don't give any consideration to what the community is going to think of my representation of an individual -- I've got an obligation to my democracy and my country."

That sense of duty can be lost on observers, who often have visceral reactions to grievous crimes. There can be a tendency to lump the lawyer together with the accused, to equate defending someone with endorsing their actions.

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