Do I need a solicitor if I plead guilty?

What can a solicitor do for me?

I am a solicitor based in Oxfordshire specialising in drink driving cases.  I often see people in court who have attended without a solicitor to represent them; often I see them getting much longer driving bans and fines than they would if I had been representing them.  Having spoken to a lot of people about this, I’ve come to the conclusion that many people don’t understand what a solicitor can do for them when they plead guilty.

I was told by a fellow solicitor that he often attends court in drink driving cases but rarely has much impact on the outcome of the case.  I was surprised to hear that because there is a lot a solicitor can, and should, be able to do for somebody who is pleading guilty.

Before court

For me, the case begins long before we get near the courtroom. I always request the prosecution evidence in advance so that I can sit down with my client and advise them about it.  I can identify aggravating factors that will increase the sentence and plan with the client how we will deal with those.  I also look for any mitigating factors that will help reduce your sentence.  I can also talk you through the court process and what to expect – something I find worries a lot of people.

Ensuring that every client has the best advice on their prospects of winning a trial is a very important part of the defence solicitor’s job.  Our justice system is adversarial, meaning that the prosecution must prove the case against the defendant – if they cannot then the defendant is not guilty.  It does happen that a client will intend to plead guilty but upon seeing the evidence it’s clear that the prosecution cannot prove their case and they are eventually acquitted.

A first time offender who is normally a responsible person can help herself a lot by obtaining character references.  These help convince the court that this incident is out of the ordinary and have in the past made the difference between a client going home or going to prison.

At court

It is sometimes claimed that the court’s legal advisor or the duty solicitor will help unrepresented defendants – don’t count on it.  A duty solicitor is there to help defendants facing a prison sentence and will not always get involved in drink driving cases.  So far as the legal advisor is concerned, let me put it this way: I witnessed a defendant in court today plead guilty then put forward mitigation that was clearly a defence.  The legal adviser simply ignored this contradiction and allowed the bench to sentence him (and seize his car into the bargain).  Not really the sort of help you want and despite the name, legal advisors are not always legally qualified to the standard of a solicitor.

In court, the prosecution will set out their case to the magistrates after which I will set about mitigating on your behalf.  Mitigation has two very broad headings, first is mitigation relating to the offence – such as why your actions are not as serious as the prosecution say they are.  The second is personal mitigation, one of the aims of which is to engender some sympathy for you from the court – so it may focus on our family, your work, both or something entirely different.  I am a great believer in knowing your audience so I do my best to watch the magistrates before my case is called on to get a feel for what sort of arguments are likely to work and, which are doomed to failure.

Mitigation is also the time for legal arguments.  In England, you will usually get a reduced sentence for pleading guilty but most non-specialist solicitors and magistrates mistakenly think this does not apply to driving disqualifications.  It does and there is a wealth of law cases from home and Europe to prove this.  This point is one of the most commonly deployed legal arguments.

One of the most important jobs your solicitor can do is to keep the judge from exceeding his or her authority.  Last year, I dealt with two cases within a week of one another where the District Judge in one case and the magistrates in the other imposed a sentence wholly incompatible with the sentencing guidelines.  Obviously, I was able to spot the errors quickly, address the bench and cite the appropriate law so as to convince the court that it was exceeding its powers.

After the hearing it is very important that you understand exactly what has happened in the court room because it can have a big impact on you in future.  So, after the hearing I will always discuss the case with my clients after the hearing to make sure they understood what was said by the court and what that means for them.

What impact can your solicitor have on the outcome?

Instructing the right solicitor who understands the very specialised law surrounding drink driving offences can have a big impact on the outcome of your case.

We’ll briefly look at a couple of recent cases to see what impact a solicitor can have on your case.  In the first, the defendant had no previous convictions, was a family man and a business man who had been out with friends and thought he was being sensible by only drinking two glasses of wine when his friends consumed far more.  It was clear from speaking to him that he did not think anything to do with his personal life was relevant and so would not have told the court about it had he been unrepresented.  In fact, I took the court through the circumstances of the offence, explained to them about his family life and his business.  I was able to build a picture of an honest and responsible man who had made a mistake and who was genuinely remorseful for his actions.  The court indicated that the correct starting point was a fine totalling 150% of his weekly income and a 16-month driving ban.  After hearing the mitigation they reduce the fine to 50% of weekly income and a 12-month ban.  They further reduced the ban to 9-months upon completion of the drink driving rehabilitation course.

In the second case, the defendant had been caught drink driving after police saw him speeding and jumping a read light.  He was more than twice over the drink driving limit and facing a disqualification of 22 months.  In mitigation, I cited case law that says the court should take into account the impact on the defendant’s career.  The court agreed and reduced the sentence to 16 months – after the drink driving rehabilitation course that is a 12 month disqualification.

So, in conclusion: what can a solicitor do for somebody pleading guilty?

  1. Reduce the sentence you receive at the end of the case;
  2. Help settle your nerves about the hearing;
  3. Ensure your case is fully prepared for every eventuality;
  4. Give you expert advice on the evidence against you;
    1. Whether there is a defence;
    2. Whether the evidence can help mitigate for you
  5. Give you expert advice on the law to get you the best result possible;
  6. Provide convincing and persuasive advocacy on your behalf; and
  7. Rectify any mistakes by the court before they cause you a problem.

You can get expert legal advice and quality advocacy for your case from Oxford Drink Driving Solicitor (01869 866 490).

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