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Are lawyers expected to have morals when doing their official work?

March 20, 2019

By Christian Lawrence

Let me state at this stage that I am not a lawyer. So if I make strange assumptions here, you can readily understand where I am coming from. However, I have always been very curious and interested in observing how Law is practiced in Sierra Leone. Intriguing, I must say. I have seen firsthand how morally-upright young men and women pursue Law and becoming lawyers; only to be filled with dilemma since they find it daunting reconciling their morals viz-a-viz the practice of Law. This article’s title: ‘Are lawyers expected to have morals when doing their official work’ is rhetorical and teasing at the same time. As readers, after digesting this piece you will have the responsibility to make a determination whether lawyers should exude morality when carrying out their official functions or not.

The ‘adversarial’ nature of Sierra Leone’s legal system makes winning for lawyers a purely cut-throat game. I can’t blame them much on this one. Let me cautiously delve into the minefield of evidence collection in a legal matter to better illustrate my points. Obtaining evidence in a suspect’s premises without an official warrant is generally inadmissible in court. Even if the ‘smoking gun’ is found in the premises of an accused and can easily be linked to him, because such evidence was acquired illegally, the law says it is nullity. The fancy phrase lawyers usually use is ‘food of the poisonous tree…’ which literally means any evidence, even if very sufficient and compelling that is found in a suspect’s premises without an official warrant is void. Can you process that for a moment? Even if you have a wiretap that brings out the audio of the accused admitting to the crime; or you find the bloody knife and clothes of the victim in the suspect’s room, if an official warrant did not predate the collection of evidence it goes out of the window. Simple! Us lay people sometimes have a hard time understanding justice this way. So the accused will get a free card based on a technicality. Now the Defense Counsel knows he has used his skills to get a very guilty person go undeservedly free, NOT because he was proven not to have committed, say murder, but because the process to prove his guilt was flawed. So can the Defense lawyer with a straight face say that ‘justice (in its true sense) has been served?’ Justice for whom? You mean justice for the accused who it’s clear actually committed the crime but gets off on some technicality? What about justice for the complainant who has brutally lost his loved one?

Look at this scenario. A mass baby murderer meets a lawyer and asks for his service. He shows no sign of remorse as he truthfully explains how he went about slaughtering, say, twenty babies right in front of their grieving mothers. However, he wants the lawyer to represent him and set him free. The murderer didn’t for once deny that he did not commit the act. He was even boastful about it, to the point of giving the indirect impression that if set free he may repeat such a dastardly act. The lawyer takes the case because he wants the money, or may need the bragging rights later that he was smarter enough to get his client free. Under the law, the lawyer is certainly within his rights to take such a case, even though some of us may feel awful about it all. The lawyer, morals aside, with alacrity will find scraps of countering evidences; use technicalities and deflections; bravado and any other ammunition in his legal armoury to get his client free. Even if he cannot honestly convince the judge or jury that his client was innocent of the charges; if bribery, subterranean threats of jurors or some other dishonorable means can do the trick, it’s fair enough for him. That’s a ‘good’ lawyer for you. He gets his client free, ‘he is the man’ of the day. Does it not set your nerves on fire knowing that a given lawyer can fully know of his client’s heinous and unimaginable crime and will still delightfully represent and set him free irrespective of the dire effects his actions will have on the parents/friends/loved ones of the victims and the society at large?

Can lawyers come to the realization that although a Defense Counsel may have done his job ‘well’ by getting his client acquitted, he is morally very wrong to have set a guilty murderer free? Will such a Defense Counsel, being a Catholic for example, have the courage to attend Mass the subsequent Sunday and take part in the Blessed Sacrament (Communion) knowing fully well that he has let a criminal of such notoriety free, with the propensity that he may soon repeat his ignoble act? We all know the legal mantra that ‘a person is innocent until proven guilty’, but is there a limit as to how lawyers go about freeing persons who commit very grievous crimes? Do lawyers know that while they will be making toasts to their victories in the evening with friends, there are complainants who because they lose such cases may be physically and/or emotionally wrecked for their entire lives? There are instances where complainants have committed suicide just because the accused persons, who for example murdered their loved ones (perhaps in their presence), were set free in court. Complainants have been murdered in the past by murder suspects who were set free by lawyers. How will a ‘successful’ Defense Counsel feel when he learns that after freeing a murder suspect last week, his client went after and murdered the complainant for bringing charges against him? Do lawyers just shrug it off and say, all I have to do is concern myself with the interpretation of just the law to defend my client?

Some lawyers, it seems will never reach the rubicund – they just work exhaustively during their professional odyssey to get as many notorious criminals (even mass murderers and rapists) back in the streets. Who cares, some may say, ‘I am practicing law’. The real question is, how does a lawyer reconcile morality with the law? I know few honorable lawyer friends who inject some dose of morality into their work – they carefully screen before cherry-picking which cases they take. If a case smells really funny, with all kinds of moral questions dangling in the air, they are not eating! So yes, lawyers have got to make a name for themselves and money; so they take cases, sometimes dishonorable ones. Yes, even the most notorious criminals, or suspects (as lawyers would like to call them) deserve legal representation. We have to respect the tenets of the Rule of Law, albeit perniciously sometimes. In conclusion, the way our legal system is configured in Sierra Leone (like in many other Commonwealth countries), Defense lawyers will intermittently have to deal with the quagmire of reconciling their individual morality while practicing the law.

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