Lord Sumption is one of the most senior judges in the country. He is the only person ever to be appointed direct to the Supreme Court from the Bar and is generally considered a very clever lawyer. As a barrister, he prided himself on switching areas of law throughout his career – in a recent speech he described specialisation in law as “bogus” and that solicitors would do well to dip their toes in other areas of law. His point is that over specialisation causes solicitors to become insular and fail to relate case law in their specialisation to law from outside.
To an extent, Lord Sumption is correct that an appreciation for the law in general is important to all of us who choose to specialise in a particular area, but he is quite wrong to describe specialisation as “bogus”.
We were recently approached by a potential client, John, who was accused of being drunk in charge of a motor vehicle. He explained that he had no intention of driving and was simply waiting for his partner to collect him – this is a complete defence in law to the allegation. Getting everything right was very important because John already had 6 penalty points on his driving licence and so faced disqualification if convicted. This meant that not only did John’s driving licence, job and home rely on his winning the case but so did his application for British citizenship.
Unfortunately, at the last minute John decided to go with a non-specialist solicitor to save a relatively small amount of money. At court, the prosecution was willing to accept that John’s partner was going to collect him – that’s half the defence done right there. But, the non-specialist solicitor advised a guilty plea and said she would tell the court that disqualifying John would cause exceptional hardship. If successful, this would mean that John would be allowed to keep his driving licence.
The court imposed 10 points, giving John a total of 16 and disqualified him from driving under the totting up provisions.
Following the hearing, John got back in touch saying he was unhappy with the advice he received from the non-specialist solicitor and the outcome of the case. He wanted advice on appealing his conviction since he clearly had a strong defence to the allegation.
Unfortunately, we had to advise him that by pleading guilty he had all but given up his right to appeal conviction. We explained that while it is possible to argue that poor legal advice should allow his guilty plea to be overturned the advice would have to be so bad that the guilty plea was no longer a true admission of guilty. In a case such as this, an appeal court would be very unlikely to find that to be the case.
Had he gone to trial with a specialist solicitor, there is a very good chance that he would have been acquitted. This would have meant that he would have kept his driving licence, kept his job and neither his home nor application for British citizenship would now be in jeopardy.
So, while it is well and good for Lord Sumption to call legal specialisms “bogus”, the reality for many is that choosing a non-specialist solicitor leads to poor outcomes that could easily be avoided by choosing the right solicitor first time.