Do I need a lawyer? This is a question that any sensible person who has been charged with a criminal or traffic offence should ask themselves. You might expect me to say that the answer is always a resounding, unequivocal, YES! but I might surprise you; not everyone needs a lawyer, even if most should seriously consider it.
Whether or not a lawyer is necessary in a given case really depends on two things – the nature of the case and the nature of the defendant. For extremely serious charges it is utter madness for a person to attempt to represent themselves no matter how comfortable or confident they are with the court and justice process. In other cases, a person can be well served by retaining a lawyer to guide them in preparing for court and then advocating for them (‘doing all the talking’, as it were), even for a relatively minor charge.
In the context of a criminal or traffic proceeding, a lawyer contributes value in 3 main ways:
- By providing expert advice on the law and how it applies to the client’s situation,
- By removing the need for a client to deal with the administrative side of the justice system like routine court appearances or the filing of documents, and
- By performing the role of courtroom advocate (so the client doesn’t have to).
Even in less serious cases, the law which applies can be complicated and misunderstandings or a lack of knowledge can result in significant detriment (consider, for example, the person who is disqualified from holding a licence for low range drink driving; if this person does not apply for a work licence on the day that they are sentenced, they lose their chance to do so altogether). An appropriately experienced lawyer will advise a client, right from the start, of the law and their options to make sure that the client’s interests are preserved.
For more serious cases, or contested matters (meaning where a client will plead not guilty), there are often numerous administrative steps taken in court before anything of substance occurs. At worst, this process can require a client to take several days out of their lives (off work or study and/or away from family) to attend court for entirely administrative purposes but a person who has a lawyer need not appear in court themselves at these types of administrative mentions.
Being sentenced for an offence, either by a Magistrate or a Judge, is a daunting experience particularly for people who have never had any contact with courts or the justice system before. For better or for worse, the law is a special language and knowing how to speak it is an enormous benefit. In the most dramatic (though not at all uncommon) situations a lawyer who knows the law and understand how to speak the language can be the difference between going to jail, and not.
With all of that said then, when is a lawyer unnecessary? I would respectfully suggest that a lawyer in unnecessary in those cases where a defendant understands the full implications of pleading guilty or not guilty, are comfortable with the possible ‘worst case’ outcome regarding penalty and where they feel confident to speak for themselves in a courtroom setting.
Most criminal and traffic lawyers (me included) will offer a free initial consultation and it is entirely reasonable for a person to expect to walk away from any such meeting with a proper understanding of their options and the likely range of penalty. After this is done, it is a matter for each individual to assess how much value they see in having a professional acting for them in the context of whichever option they wish to exercise and the ‘worst case’ downside of doing so.
In summary I say – not everyone needs a lawyer but everyone who has been charged with an offence should at least take advantage of a consultation to enable them to make an informed decision on the subject.