Lawyers in Britain
Lawyers are the most numerous officials who work in the British legal system. Whilst introducing and defining laws in the UK is the role of parliament and politicians, the application of those laws is the primarily a role for lawyers and the judiciary. In Britain the judiciary – judges and magistrates – have been independent of political influence for centuries. Indeed it is their responsibility to interpret the law and judge cases without fear or favour. The various careers in the legal profession are relatively well paid and so tend to attract the brightest and the best. Even so, these students will often need to work for years on quite low pay while they work through internships and get the necessary experience to become financially independent. In short, the legal profession in both England and Scotland, are part of the democratic system and work hard to be impartial.
Lawyers in the UK tend to specialise in either criminal law or commercial law. Criminal law is the poorer paid, as those accused don’t necessarily have any money to pay costs. A safety net known as legal aid is available, but it is capped and the government tries to reduce the budget whenever it can. Criminal lawyers work on a rota system and must take any case that they are offered, unless there is a good legal reason why that should not. Commercial law can be very profitable, as it can involve disputes between companies who have much at stake and the funds to support legal action.
Criminal lawyers will work within the judicial system – courts, in which they either make their cases directly to a judge or high courts, where they plead on behalf of their clients to a jury. Such cases can involve accusations of most illegal acts, from motoring offences (in cases when the accused denies liability) to violence and even murder. Lawyers can also specialise in family or civil law, couple getting divorced for example or property disputes or employment law. Commercial law can involve disputes over copyright or business practices, and tends to involve negotiation between the interested parties in an attempt to prevent the case from getting to court – which can prove extremely expensive. In the UK, laws are based on a mix of common law – social practices that have developed into a loose legal framework – and laws based on the christian bible and religious teaching. As the country united under a single government, so the legal framework became centralised and there became a split between two practitioners – barristers and solicitors (though both work under the general description of lawyers). In Scotland a similar split took place between Advocates and Procurators.
Many people will consult with a solicitor in their everyday lives. A solicitor will help in the purchase of a home, or in writing a will. They can advise on basic business practice (setting up companies) and can take part in negotiating outcomes between parties that do not need recourse to law. They will also be the first legal representative present if someone is arrested by the police and charged with a crime. As the case proceeds, they will act as the liaison between the accused and the barrister and carry out much of the research that will become the case for the defence. The usual practice is that the solicitor will brief the barrister in writing on the case and then the barrister will then carry out his or her own research and then draft the court pleadings and argue the case orally. Whilst a solicitor may appear on behalf of their client in some lower court, only barristers can represent plaintiffs in the higher courts.
Many lawyers maintain a relationship with a client over a period of years and offer advice across the legal spectrum. Any discussions between a lawyer and client are confidential according to common law and the European Court of Human Rights. This privilege is absolute and cannot be broken except by statute. Consequently many lawyers also offer business and tax advice as part of their remit. In any case, the advice is always put within the context of British law – the application of abstract legal principles into concrete legal action.