A criminal charge is a serious matter. In today’s security-obsessed environment, it seems that everyone is asked to undergo a criminal record check, whether for work, school or volunteering. A criminal record, even for a minor offence, can have devastating consequences for you as an employee, a student, a parent volunteering at your child’s school, a traveler to the United States, a new immigrant, or even as a homeowner seeking to borrow money from the bank.
And like an infection or disease left untreated, a criminal charge can metastasize into something worse unless you seek legal help.
That is why, if you are faced with a criminal charge laid against you by the police, by another branch of government, or by a private citizen, you need to consider hiring a criminal defence lawyer to advise you and to defend your interests.
These are common questions, and in the past, not having any connections or inside knowledge was a real problem. But now, in the online era, all the information you need, to help you find the best lawyer for you and your case, is only a click away.
The following is a short guide to making sure that the criminal defence lawyer you choose is the right one for you.
- Do I need to hire a lawyer?
In most cases where you are facing a criminal charge, the answer is yes. Even the most minor shoplifting or drug possession or domestic assault can cause long term problems and affect your future prospects for employment, travel, school, or even attendance at your children’s school functions. A lawyer will be able to negotiate- or fight for- the best result for you, because she knows what laws, policies, precedents and evidence will be most compelling, and she will know how to assemble and present it all in the most effective way. But more than, this, a good lawyer will provide you with information and insight, to help you understand why you are facing this ordeal; what your options are; and will help you navigate these unfamiliar waters. Your lawyer will not only get you the best results, he will give you knowledge, and peace of mind.
A paralegal will often be cheaper than a lawyer, but be careful. A paralegal will not have the same education and experience; is limited in what types of cases he can take on; and will not receive the same respect or attention in court that a real lawyer will. If you are facing a traffic ticket, hire a paralegal. But for a criminal charge, don’t cut corners.
- Do I need to hire a lawyer before my first appearance in court?
Not necessarily. You could go to court, collect your disclosure (the evidence brief), and then meet with lawyers. On the other hand, you will usually have 4-6 weeks between your arrest date and the first court date. If you are anxious about the case, and want to get information (as most people do), why wait? This is a valuable time to start looking for a lawyer. Most lawyers will handle routine court appearances for you, including your first appearance, and this can save you time and the stress of going to court until the end of the case. It should cost the same whether you hire a lawyer before or after the first court appearance. Sometimes the lawyer can get started right away, and recommend valuable steps for you to take long before the first court appearance. This could save you time later on, or even help to gather important evidence while it is still fresh. And knowing that you have a lawyer to represent you and to answer your questions, long before you have to go to court, can generate real peace of mind.
- Pick a lawyer who focuses his practice on criminal law
There are many lawyers out there. Some are specialists in one area of the law, and some practise in several fields (such as criminal law, family law, and civil litigation). The law is complex and ever-changing. It is challenging enough to stay current and sharp in one area of law; trying to be a “jack-of-all-trades” often leaves the general practitioner the “master of none”. There are exceptions, but especially if you live in a busy urban area, you should seek out a lawyer who specializes in criminal law to defend you in a criminal case. Don’t be the guinea pig for an old divorce lawyer who wants to get back into the courtroom one last time, or a young real estate lawyer who thinks it can’t be that hard to handle a DUI or a domestic assault.
- Choose a lawyer with the knowledge and experience to handle your case
There are old lawyers who have been around forever, but are bitter and unmotivated. There are young lawyers who are motivated, energetic, but just don’t have the experience to know how to guide your case through the analysis, negotiation and trial stages of a criminal proceeding. You need to find a balance: a criminal defence lawyer who has practised for several years and who has worked on a variety of cases ranging from the simple to the complex. Has the lawyer handled a case like yours? How often? Is he a trial lawyer? If your case is an appeal, is she an appeal lawyer? If the Crown is proceeding by indictment, has he conducted jury trials before?
Once you have narrowed your search to criminal defence lawyers who have the knowledge and experience to handle your case, you can then move on to consider other important issues that are key to selecting the best lawyer for you and your case.
- I want a lawyer who will return my calls!
This is very important. A lawyer who wants your business, but won’t return your call or email promptly when you first contact him, is a lawyer who will not be returning your call after he has taken your money. Law is a client-driven business. Your case is about you, and it is you who bears the consequences of the case, not the lawyer. So don’t tell yourself that lawyers are busy, or that because your case is a small one it might take a few days to hear back. A good lawyer is busy, but she is also one who will return your call promptly. You should expect prompt and courteous service, and a lawyer who does not make that a priority is a lawyer who is focused on the wrong things. You should get a call back the same day, and certainly within 24 hours, even if it is to say that she has received your call and will get back to you today, or tomorrow by a certain time. And when there is an emergency, like the police are on their way to arrest you, you want a lawyer or law firm that has an emergency number for 24/7 service. A criminal defence lawyer with a 24 hour emergency line is a lawyer who puts clients first.
- I want a lawyer who answers my questions and explains the process to me in plain English
The criminal case will feature case law and statute, regulations, policies and procedures, strategy and tactics. For someone who has never been in trouble before, the complexity of the law can seem intimidating.
That is why you need a lawyer who takes the time to explain to you each and every aspect of the case, because, as mentioned earlier, it is your case and you are the one who must live with the result. You need to know what is happening with your case, and why. There are no “stupid questions”. Lawyers, especially courtroom lawyers, are, above all, communicators, and so your lawyer should be able to communicate with you properly. That means that you are entitled to have these questions answered, in plain English, and answered promptly.
- Why are lawyers so expensive?
It’s true. Unless you are signing a simple will or getting your passport notarized, legal fees are expensive. And if you are facing criminal charges in court, they can add up quickly. There are many things that go into a lawyer’s fee. You are paying for their time: to communicate (with you, with the police, the Crown, with witnesses, with the Court); to analyze your case; to do legal research; to go to court; to negotiate; to prepare and argue your case. You are paying for their level of knowledge and experience. A recent law graduate is going to be a lot cheaper than a former Crown attorney with twenty years of experience. You are also paying for the size and complexity of your case.
Some lawyers charge an hourly rate; others charge a fixed fee, also known as a “block” fee. For most criminal cases, a lawyer should quote you a fixed fee so that you know in advance what the case will cost. This is especially so when the case is one which could be considered relatively straightforward or “routine” (routine does not mean it’s not important- every client’s case is important). For the simpler cases, and even for the most of the more complex ones, an experienced criminal defence lawyer will have a pretty clear idea of what amount of time and effort will go into the various stages of the case, and can quote you a fee either at the first meeting, or after getting a fairly quick glance at the nature and volume of the disclosure (the evidence provided by the Crown). In some cases, the lawyer will quote you a fee to analyze the evidence, with the balance of the fees to be discussed after the analysis is complete, depending on what the options are for the case. But either way, the lawyer should be able to quote you a ballpark figure for the case, depending on whether gets resolved or goes to trial. A criminal lawyer who won’t give you a quote or a good sense of what you might be on the hook for financially is not a lawyer you should trust with your hard-earned money.
Find out what the retainer fee includes. Will the lawyer cover court appearances for you? Are they included in the fee? The Criminal Code permits lawyers to handle most routine court appearances on your behalf so that you do not have to take a day off work every month to go to the courthouse. Make sure that the fee includes these appearances, or at least that you are not charged an unreasonable amount for each routine appearance.
Does the lawyer charge for disbursements? It is normal for some fees, such as those for outside experts, counsellors, court transcripts, to be charged to the client, or for the client to pay directly. But what about internal office costs, like paper, faxes, photocopies, mileage? Make sure you find out what is included in the fee, to avoid unpleasant surprises.
When you are looking for a lawyer, be especially careful about the “ambulance chasers” who prey on inexperienced, vulnerable or scared people who are showing up for a bail hearing or a first court appearance without a lawyer. These courthouse hustlers will approach you in the hallway and take a small amount of money from you (always cash) and will take the disclosure (the evidence package) from you. You will never hear from them again unless you keep paying them, over and over again. A good lawyer is too busy to solicit clients in the courthouse hallway.
As for payment of fees, most lawyers will offer a variety of payment methods: cheque, bank draft, email transfer, credit card, and yes- cash. A lawyer who only accepts cash is a lawyer who is cheating on his taxes, and he is likely violating the regulations of the Law Society as well. A criminal lawyer who is a criminal is not a lawyer you want to hire for your case. And for clients who qualify for Legal Aid, you should know that a lawyer who is handling your case on a Legal Aid certificate is not permitted to ask you for additional money. That is a violation of Legal Aid rules, and Law Society rules as well. There are plenty of good, honest lawyers out there who will handle your case on Legal Aid without siphoning money from you under the table.
A final note: when you give your lawyer money, no matter what the form of payment, make sure you GET A RECEIPT. As mentioned above, being a crook doesn’t make you a better criminal lawyer.
Legal fees are an important factor in deciding who to hire for your case. As with many things in life, you get what you pay for. But not always. Some excellent lawyers are reasonably priced, and some expensive ones are too busy to handle your case with proper care. You need to have an idea of what the cost might be to you before you formally hire a lawyer and give her your hard- earned money.
- Will the lawyer I hire do the actual work, or will she delegate it to a junior lawyer or student?
That is a very important question. At many firms, the senior lawyers are focused on the more complex or higher profile cases, and the simpler or more “routine” cases are handed down the line to the junior staff. This might be fine if the senior lawyer oversees the work. But you need to know who will be analyzing the evidence, meeting with you, negotiating with the Crown. And you should not be paying rates for a senior lawyer if a junior lawyer is doing most of the work.
- Does the lawyer offer a free consultation?
You want a lawyer who takes the time out of her busy schedule to meet with you at no cost to you, to discuss your case and to answer your questions. That is a sign that she will take the time to return your calls and explain the case to you after she is hired. A lawyer who wants money before meeting with you is a lawyer who puts money first, the client second. A consultation is an opportunity to meet and evaluate the lawyer who will handle your case. You will be able to ask questions and obtain vital information about the lawyer, his methods and approach to the case, as well as about the costs, timeframe for the case, and so on. When you can meet and discuss the case with the lawyer in advance, you will be able an informed decision about whether this lawyer is best for you. If you are pressured to make a decision before meeting with him, or to pay for the privilege of a conversation, you will not be able to make a proper assessment of whether she is the right lawyer for you.
- I am charged with sexual assault. Should I hire a female lawyer?
There are several variations to this question: I am from a small town. Will it help me or hurt me to hire a lawyer from a big city like Toronto? I am charged with impaired driving. Should I hire a lawyer who specializes in DUI cases? Does it help to have a former Crown represent me? In each of these scenarios, the answer is that you first need to find a lawyer who meets the criteria mentioned above: a criminal lawyer with the knowledge and experience to handle your case; who will communicate with you in a timely and complete fashion; and a lawyer you can afford. Once you are satisfied that the lawyer meets these criteria, then the decision becomes more about who you feel most comfortable with. Do you like his approach to the case? Do you feel like she understands you and will do her best for you? These factors will matter more than the lawyer’s gender, location or C.V.
I’ve followed all of these steps, but I’m still not sure. What do I do?
The reality is that you will not really know how your lawyer will perform until after she is hired and begins working on your case. You will have to base your decision on the information you have collected by following the steps laid out above, perhaps supplemented by reading reviews about the lawyer on Google or on a site like LawyerRatingz.com (but decide for yourself: reviews are only a guide, and some can be misleading). You are placing your future into the hands of a professional, but she is someone you have only met perhaps once or twice. To avoid regrets or second-guessing, do your homework first. Meet her. Ask questions. Know what you are getting with this lawyer. But once you have done the research and asked the questions, trust your gut. Your instincts will likely be correct. And when you enjoy the peace of mind that comes with believing that you made the right decision, and when you get the result you were hoping for, or even if you don’t, you can rest secure in the knowledge that you chose the best lawyer for you and your case.