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Defending the Accused: Ethical Considerations of Modern Lawyers



If there is one experience all aspiring lawyers share, it is this. Everytime I meet someone new and tell them about my career aspirations, I get slapped with the same question: “But what if you had to defend a guilty person?” It is the age-old inquiry that reflects a common societal perception of lawyers as individuals who must grapple with ethical dilemmas on a daily basis. While the question itself may be a bit cliché, it touches on a fundamental aspect of the legal profession ⸺ the ethical considerations that come with the responsibility of defending the accused. 


Picture this: a lone figure, clad in the armour of legal expertise, steps into the fray to champion the cause of their client. You see, a lawyer’s  purpose does not just revolve around winning cases; rather, it is about upholding justice, ensuring a fair trial and with much emphasis, protecting the rights of the accused. Unfortunately, these said rights often get overlooked, with the accused being dubbed as the “bad guy” by the court of public opinion, immediately upon accusations. Hence, the act of defending the accused, despite any potential evidence reflecting guilt upon them, is not about condoning criminal acts, but rather, it is about acknowledging the necessity of a robust legal system where every individual, regardless of the severity of their alleged crimes, is entitled to a fair defence. 


Be that so, it may not always be as simple as it seems on paper. Lawyers are, by profession, bound to provide a zealous defence to their clients in order to ensure a fair trial, and while this may include the typical advocacy and explanation of the client’s legal rights, the lines of ethics become blurred when evidence and witnesses have to be challenged and questioned respectively. This holds especially true in cases where the nature of the crime is particularly egregious. 


A lawyer is obliged to accompany their clients to court, a forum often open to public scrutiny. As mentioned, it is often part of a defence lawyer’s role to rigorously question witnesses and cast doubt on their credibility, potentially insinuating that the victim’s account may not be entirely truthful. While this tactic may seem morally dubious, it’s undertaken in pursuit of defending their clients who stand accused, highlighting the complex and sometimes uncomfortable nature of the legal process. 


Hence, despite simply fulfilling their professional duties, defence lawyers may find themselves facing public backlash, and even the ruination of their reputations. 


Take the infamous Depp v Heard case for instance, a case on alleged domestic violence involving the once Hollywood power couple, Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. Throughout the highly publicised trial, Heard’s lead attorney, Elaine Bredhoft became the target of relentless media scrutiny and ridicule, resulting in utter tarnishing of her professional reputation, casting a shadow over her future career prospects as a private attorney. Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the courtroom, Depp’s attorneys, Camille Vasquez and Benjamin Chew received widespread praise for championing the cause of the ‘wronged’ party. This portrayal, while reflecting a societal tendency to align with the perceived victims, illustrates the immense challenges faced, especially in such high profile cases where public opinion can swiftly turn into a powerful force against those who defend the accused.


With all the downsides and dangers of defending the accused, why do we still need to do it? The answer lies in the foundation of it all —-- the presumption of innocence, whereby:


“Everyone shall be assumed innocent until proven guilty.”


The presumption of innocence serves as a safeguard against hasty judgments and preconceived notions, both within the legal system and in the court of public opinion. It establishes a fundamental commitment to fairness and justice, ensuring that the accused is treated with dignity and respect throughout the entire legal process. 


In essence, defending the accused is not just about advocating for individual clients; it’s about upholding the integrity of the legal process itself. Without strong defence representation, the presumption of innocence becomes a hollow concept and the risk of miscarriages of justice looms large. Each person accused of a crime deserves a fair trial, regardless of the severity of the allegations made against them. This fundamental aspect of a just and equitable society has since been recognised worldwide, namely in Article 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 


With that, defending the accused is not about condoning criminal behaviour, rather, it is about affirming the principles of fairness that lays as a foundation to our legal system. 


In the end, despite the risks that follow it, the work of modern defence lawyers is essential for the maintaining of the balance of justice in society. They stand as frontrunners of the legal realm, ensuring that even the most marginalised and vilified individuals are afforded the full protections of the law. It is undeniably a challenging and often thankless task, but one that is vital for the preservation of the rule of law. 


Thus, the next time someone asks you: “But what if you had to defend a guilty person?”, you can tell them just that. Everything I just said in this article, word for word. 



Written by: Elaine Chee

Edited by: Ho Jia Xuan

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