Before I begin this post I should make two things clear.
Firstly, I will not be going into the specific events and characters surrounding the Alfie Evans case, and the legal advice or representation that his parents received – others have already given their critique of those things far better than I ever could. This post is simply predicated by the events of the case, and is intended to deal with the subject of legal advice and representation in purely general terms.
Secondly, and more importantly, nothing whatsoever in this post is intended in any way to be or to imply the slightest criticism of Alfie’s parents. They were only doing what any parent would do, i.e. everything they possibly could to try to save their beloved child.
But the case does throw up important lessons for anyone seeking legal advice and/or representation, particularly in these post-legal aid times. Hopefully, what I am about to say may be of assistance to such people, especially if they cannot afford to instruct a solicitor.
The first point to note when seeking legal advice or representation is this: know who you are dealing with. In particular, know what their qualifications are to give legal advice. Do not assume simply because they give themselves some legal-sounding title that they are qualified. For example, anyone can call themselves a ‘lawyer’, or ‘counsel’, without having any sort of legal qualifications whatsoever. Nothing comes with those words, in terms of a guarantee or assurance of legal qualifications or expertise, unlike when you instruct someone who calls themselves a ‘solicitor’ or a ‘barrister’, for example (or a ‘chartered legal executive’). Those two terms do actually mean something – if you are not a solicitor or a barrister you cannot describe yourself as such, and to be a barrister or a solicitor you must have proper legal qualifications.
Of course, it is quite possible for someone who is not a barrister or a solicitor to give good legal advice, and it is also possible for someone who is a barrister or a solicitor to give bad advice, but obviously someone who is qualified is far more likely to give good advice.
But even if a barrister or a solicitor should give bad advice there is still protection for the client, in the form of regulation and insurance. Being a solicitor or a barrister is about more than just qualifications. It is about being regulated. This means that not only do they have to meet (and keep) certain qualification requirements, they have to abide by a set of ethics, or standards, and there is a complaints procedure available for any client who believes they have not complied with those ethics. And if things do go really wrong, then indemnity insurance, that all solicitors (for example) are required to have will compensate the client for any loss.
The moral from all of this is: seek advice from a qualified lawyer if you possibly can. Of course, you may not be able to do so – in that case, make enquiries as to the legal expertise of those from whom you seek legal advice, and only take their advice if you are satisfied that they have the necessary knowledge to provide it.
But even if they do have that knowledge, or even proper legal qualifications, there is still another matter: do they have an agenda? A lot of providers of legal advice and/or representation do so in order to further an agenda. Whereas a firm of solicitors, for example, will have no agenda other than to provide a service (and hopefully make a profit), some organisations have a particular political or other agenda in mind. This is especially so in the field of family law, where there are many groups of people who take a particular position in relation to some aspect of the subject.
Now, you may actually agree with the agenda of the organisation you consult. However, the problem is that their agenda may obviously cloud their legal advice. A ‘lawyer’ who doesn’t give unbiased advice to their client is doing the client no favours at all. Raising false hopes as to the outcome of their case is likely to end in disaster. Sometimes you have to tell the client something they don’t want to hear – that is part of the job of being a real ‘lawyer’.
Sometimes, particularly since the abolition of legal aid for most family law matters, the family legal advice ‘market’ can seem a bit like the Wild West, with a free-for-all of ‘providers’ offering their services without regulation or ethics. It can be very difficult for those seeking advice, who are often in a very vulnerable position, to stop themselves from falling prey to those who are charlatans, or just well-meaning but wrong. Hopefully they may be assisted by what I have said above.