As the legal profession holds its breath to see what the appointment of Chris Grayling as new Justice Secretary will bring, it seems an opportune time to debunk one of the myths perpetrated by a Labour predecessor.

When Jack Straw was Home Secretary (he would go on to become Justice Secretary in 2007), he seemed to go out of his way to enrage the legal profession, attacking defence lawyers for being too ‘aggressive’, and forgetting their ‘wider social responsibilities’ (it’s an adversarial system, Jack! The clue’s in the name…).

Former Home and Justice Secretary accused criminal law solicitors of hypocrisy and being ‘too aggressive’ in defence of clients’ interests

He also claimed lawyers were in danger of outnumbering police officers. (A meaningless claim, if ever there was one.) It was left to the then Law Society president Michael Napier to calmly point out that, while there might be 83,000 practising solicitors, only 11,300 of these did criminal defence work, compared with 125,000 police officers. (What Straw had against the rest of the legal profession –  conveyancers, will-writers, those advising businesses or accident victims or would-be divorcees – was never entirely explained.)

However, the comment of Straw’s which still rankles more than a decade later was his depiction of defence solicitors as BMW-driving hypocrites. Speaking to an audience of senior police officers in 1999, Straw condemned civil liberties lawyers for campaigning against Asbos when they themselves were blissfully cocooned from the impact of anti-social behaviour.  There was, he said, ‘a huge issue of hypocrisy here. They represent the perpetrator of the crime and then get into their BMWs and drive off into areas where they are immune from much crime.’

Whether or not criminal law solicitors ever primarily resided in such crime-free idylls, they certainly don’t seem to any more. During interviews with 50 defence lawyers for the Guardian/London School of Economics studyinto last August’s disturbances, it was striking how many of them lived in inner city areas directly affected by the rioting. Many spoke about seeing the destruction, literally, on their own doorsteps; one described being under ‘house arrest’, as he was unable to leave his home in Hackney for several days as the trouble continued. Another, who was driving home to Brixton (whether in a ‘bimmer’ or not, he didn’t say), turned his car around 500 yards from home as the trouble erupted in front of him in the middle of the afternoon. A solicitor living in Tottenham described being kept awake by police helicopters and watching the retail park being looted from her house. Even some of the most senior solicitors interviewed lived in areas of relatively high crime, like Finsbury Park and Hackney.

Another defence solicitor arrives home after a hard day challenging Anti-social behaviour orders…

The new Justice Secretary may not like the activities of defence lawyers any better than Straw did, but these kinds of charges of hypocrisy no longer stick.

Interestingly, the research also included 130 police officers and a very different picture emerged here. It won’t be true in every case, clearly, but the interviews suggest that it is now the police, rather than defence solicitors, who after a shift in the inner city,  are likely to be heading home to the leafy suburbs.

The discrepancy over where lawyers and police officers live doesn’t seem to be purely an issue of finances: a two-year qualified solicitor doing defence work in London will be earning roughly the same (circa £30,000) as a Met PC with the same length of experience. All of which suggests that something else may be at work, and that police officers are more adverse than other professionals to living in the areas – or even the same kinds of areas – where they work.

It’s a point not lost on the Tottenham Citizens Inquiry in its response to the riots.

Among the inquiry’s recommendations for rebuilding Tottenham’s notoriously fraught relations with police was a call for the Met to recruit more Londoners. It also wanted to see officers new to Tottenham undergo a ‘six-month orientation process’ to help them better understand the area and its people. However, when one of the ‘commissioners’ to the inquiry asked Haringey borough commander Sandra Looby how many of her officers lived locally, her response was that she didn’t know, and, anyway, ‘it was not her job to tell people where to live’.

The police have long been criticised for failing to recruit enough black officers but the issue of recruiting people who live in urban areas to police urban areas seems to have been missed, previously. If officers’ only experience of an urban street or a racially mixed community is in their official capacity – where everyone they meet is a potential victim or presumed perpetrator –that is bound to have a skewing affect on their perception of and attitude towards the diverse mix of people they are there to serve.

Fiona Bawdon worked as a senior researcher for the Guardian/LSE ‘Reading the Riots’ research from September 2011-July 2012.

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