Lawyer of the Month: Matthew McGovern
Much has been said about the plight of criminal defence lawyers in recent years, from the inadequacy of legal aid fees to the impracticality of working hours. Almost all of it has been from the point of view of practitioners with decades of experience in the sector, though.
McGovern Reid solicitor Matthew McGovern intends to change all that. Having qualified in 2018 at the Hamilton firm established by his father, Mr McGovern is one of a small band of junior lawyers speaking up for those just coming into the profession, something he believes is vital if the criminal defence part of the justice system is to stand a chance of survival.
“The problems are quite obvious to everybody that’s involved in the criminal justice system,” he says. “The profession is getting old, there are fewer and fewer young people to be seen in the criminal courts, there are not enough trainees – if any at all – and folk that do get a traineeship and qualify in criminal defence choose very early on in their career to do something else.
“The issues are funding – it’s poorly paid in comparison to any other type of lawyer at your stage – and there’s no work-life balance as you can get called out to police interviews in the middle of the night and are on call 24/7. It’s never been less attractive to be a criminal defence lawyer.”
While those issues affect people at all stages of their career, Mr McGovern, who is on the committee of the Scottish Young Lawyers’ Association, says the impact is disproportionately felt by those at the junior end because it means they are kept locked out of the profession. Put simply, if those at the senior end are struggling to make ends meet, they are unlikely to offer traineeships and that makes entry-level positions ever-harder to come by.
As that will have a detrimental impact on the entire criminal justice system in the long run, Mr McGovern has got together with six others in the early stages of their career – solicitors Kevin Corr, Lauren Ram Sangray and Gemma Elder, trainee Heather Bell and graduates Maureen Duffy and Connor Ledger – to make sure their concerns are heard. As New Generation Lawyers they aim to campaign “for a sustainable legal aid system which allows all members of society, regardless of wealth, status or power, to have access to expert legal assistance”, to promote the interests of new and aspiring criminal lawyers, and to provide a network for those just starting out in the criminal defence sphere.
“We need to have a voice,” Mr McGovern says. “The concerns we have at the very start of our careers are very different to what more-established practitioners have and they’re to do with career development. At the Crown, there are a whole host of opportunities you can have prosecuting that you don’t really have as a defence solicitor because there’s not the funding to allow you to specialise.”
Many lawyers who do qualify in criminal defence end up either moving into other areas or leaving the law completely, lured away by the promise of better pay, more career-development opportunities and an actual work-life balance. This has created a demographical problem New Generation Lawyers wants to see addressed from the bottom up.
“The demographics of the profession are a significant problem,” Mr McGovern says. “The majority of practitioners are now upwards of 50 – at Hamilton Sheriff Court the majority of the solicitors on the duty plans were admitted to the solicitors’ roll before I was born. That’s an incredible statistic.
“There are also very few women that appear in the criminal courts, there are no ethnic minorities and no LGBT people. That’s unacceptable in other areas of public life so I don’t know why it’s allowed in this area. [First Minister and former solicitor] Nicola Sturgeon had the first gender-balanced cabinet and has led the world on these issues but in her own profession we don’t pay any regard to them. I think it’s poorer for it.”
Despite the problems facing the profession, and the fact his father Vincent has been a court lawyer for over 30 years, Mr McGovern says he was never put off going into criminal defence.
“I always wanted to be a lawyer, I always thought the idea of doing crime was attractive and I don’t want to do anything else – I don’t want to go into another area of law, I don’t want to prosecute and I don’t want to go to the bar,” he says. “It’s a good job but it could be a lot better if these problems were recognised and fixed.”
Ultimately, New Generation Lawyers intends to lobby the Scottish government about fixing the series of problems Mr McGovern believes stem from the “broken legal aid funding model”. For now, though, the organisation is focused on ensuring those problems are recognised first, something Mr McGovern says is vital before any other kind of progress can be made.
“Right now we are going to concentrate on raising awareness of the problems – I don’t at this stage see any merit in trying to find solutions if people don’t think there’s a problem,” he says. “This is a problem that’s going to have to be addressed at some stage and the longer it’s left the more it’s going to cost the taxpayer in the long run. The erosion of legal aid and pressures on legal aid funding are an attack on the rule of law and democracy, it’s just more subtle than the Prime Minister banging on about ‘leftie human rights lawyers’.”