Lawyer of the Month: Tony Lenehan

Lawyer of the Month: Tony Lenehan

Tony Lenehan

There cannot be many advocates who would willingly compare themselves to a notorious despot, but Black Chambers’ Tony Lenehan is one. Having replaced Ronnie Renucci QC as president of the Scottish Criminal Bar Association (SCBA) at the tail-end of last year, Mr Lenehan likens his ascension to the top job to that of the ruthless seventies dictator commonly known as the Butcher of Uganda.

“I spent five years as vice-president of the SBCA,” he recalls. “I didn’t have any particular notion of standing for anything, but I was contacted about becoming the vice-president and was genuinely flattered and when I stood I was unopposed.

“When Ronnie became Vice-Dean [of the Faculty of Advocates] it was suggested that I could stand as president and again no one stood against me. I’m a bit like Idi Amin – you don’t really congratulate him on his electoral success.”

That is where the similarities end, though, with Mr Lenehan, who has specialised in criminal law since his days as a Paisley solicitor, planning to spend his presidential term fighting for the interests of his colleagues in the sector.

He expects it to be no small task. From the serious suggestion that judge-only trials be introduced as a means of keeping courts running throughout the coronavirus pandemic, to the ongoing debate about legal aid fees, Mr Lenehan is clear that there is a misconception about the way the criminal justice system works and the role that defence lawyers play in it. It is his duty as SCBA president, he says, to help to rectify that.

The bench-trials suggestion, put forward by Lord President Lord Carloway last summer, was eventually abandoned after a working party led by Lord Justice Clerk Lady Dorrian was able to convert cinemas left unused due to the pandemic into remote, socially distanced courts. Yet Mr Lenehan believes the fact the idea was floated in the first place shows how little value is placed on the role juries play in society.

“From my particular perspective, the rush towards jury-less trials was a disappointing one,” he says. “There’s a tendency to undervalue the contribution that juries make and to assume that they don’t understand complex issues, but every year that I have worked with them has increased my respect for juries and their capabilities. Every mature democracy that has an adversarial system sees the value of juries.”

While it is also a mark of a civilised democracy that every accused person has the right to have their line of defence argued in court, Mr Lenehan says the importance of the role juries play was underscored for him when he acted as junior defence counsel in the case against Aaron Campbell, the teenager ultimately found guilty of the brutal murder of six-year Alesha MacPhail on the Isle of Bute.

“It was a case that confirmed my appreciation for juries,” he says. “There was some strange evidence, but the jury thought about it and saw through it and reached a unanimous decision at the end of the day.”

The case also highlighted why, in some quarters, the job defence lawyers do is so often undervalued. The lead defence counsel in the case, Brian McConnachie QC, spoke publicly at the time about the abuse he received for representing Campbell, and Mr Lenehan confirms that he, too, received “vitriolic, abusive emails from people who didn’t understand what they were talking about”.

“It’s lazy thinking by the ill-informed,” he says. “I never feel awkward justifying my job when people say ‘how can you represent criminals all the time?’, but at the moment I have a fear that, in line with lots of rushes towards populism that we’re seeing around the world, it’s easy to think that the criminal defence bar is not doing a valuable job.”

While he feels it is understandable that some members of the public may respond emotionally to what they see as lawyers trying to help criminals evade responsibility for their crimes, he says those in high office have a duty to do better. It is up to those in positions of power, Mr Lenehan says, to help the public understand that without a strong defence - whose interest is in seeing innocent parties acquitted and guilty parties appropriately treated - justice cannot be said to be done.

“When we see [home secretary] Priti Patel making comments about leftie lawyers and activist lawyers they are demoralising for people who are doing an unpopular job,” Mr Lenehan says. “Our job can be seen as being to the advantage of the criminal underclass, but that view is taken by people who haven’t taken the time to think through the reality of the process so they can appreciate the value of that process being done well.”

It is not just the public and populist politicians who appear to overlook the contribution defence lawyers make, with Mr Lenehan noting that the failure to consult the defence bar on the systemic changes that have been pushed through in the past year adding to the sense that they are not seen as an important part of the justice system.

“I do see that and worry that there are elements of that from within the judiciary,” he says. “I worry that there are some, not the majority, who are not immediately persuaded of the high value of a strong defence bar. I see it in the way that often decisions are taken through a process that would have been improved with the involvement of the defence bar. The Crown are involved, but there’s a failure to appreciate that the defence bar has a valid contribution to make.”

That came to a head in November, when members of Edinburgh and Glasgow Bar Associations refused to attend court on St Andrews Day after public-holiday sittings were added to the diet without their opinions being sought. That action came as part of a long-running dispute over legal aid fees that Mr Lenehan is hopeful can be resolved during his term as president of the SCBA.

“It all links to the sense of underappreciation of the criminal defence bar,” he says. “From our point of view, our level of payment was set down in about 2004/05. As the cost of life has risen that has represented a significant double-figure drop in income. Solicitors have had the same rate since the 1990s - they have been allowed to wither on the vine.”

Last month justice secretary Humza Yousaf announced that legal aid fees would increase by 10 per cent over the next two financial years as well as a £9m fund to help solicitors whose incomes have been hit by the pandemic and some changes to the way fees can be claimed. The package is expected to be finalised when it comes before ministers in February.

In the meantime, while the past year has brought its own stresses, with the temporary closure of the courts posing a real threat to the livelihoods of many lawyers, Mr Lenehan is also clear that it highlighted to him just how stressful his day job is and how much he values the activities he pursues away from the courts.

“If we’d spoken last January I would have said I didn’t think I had a stressful job, but when it came to lockdown and the job was ripped away I realised the hidden stresses of it,” he says. “One of the problems of being at the bar is the flexibility of being your own boss exposes you to having no work, but that also gave me lots of time away from court that I won’t see again until retirement. I tried to make something of it.”

That something involved indulging his love of fishing, an obsession Mr Lenehan has held since childhood and which has outlived his youthful enthusiasm for both rock climbing and caving. 

“From the youngest age the passion that has stayed with me my whole life is fishing – I would do it with my grandfather and I still do it a lot; above all else I fish,” he says. “A good day’s fishing is probably better than any other day I’ve spent in pursuit of anything else. I’ve spent so long at it that I think I’m probably a better fisherman than I am anything else.”

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