Law: To lie or not to lie - that is the question

Louise Woodward's lawyer should have kept her counsel - and her cool.
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The Independent Culture
SO HOW do you solve a problem like Louise? By turn a darling, a devil and the media's sacrificial lamb, she may have lost centre stage in the Wickedest Witch of the West contest to her mother, Sue (less name, more game plan), and the apparently "sharp" practice of Elaine Whitfield of the same, but she is still in the spotlight for her depleted defence team. We know a little of how Mrs Whitfield Sharp felt about her former client. The remainder of the defence are conspicuous in their reticence. And keep it to themselves they should.

Every lawyer who runs through the list of pleasantries which Mrs Whitfield Sharp has allegedly employed to describe Woodward, will recall a client to whom they would happily apply the same terms. Although perhaps not within earshot of a member of the Old Bill while being had up for having one for the road. The only one of Mrs Whitfield Sharp's tags which should concern a lawyer is that of "liar". (I do not even mention the allegation that she had not been paid).

The question every lawyer is asked at least once in a lifetime is: "How can you work for someone who is guilty?". The world outside the law office is, apparently, divided into those who are guilty and those who are innocent. This is contrary to the fundamental, yet unfashionable principle, that everyone is innocent until proven otherwise. As a lawyer, I have yet to encounter a potential client, bloodied knife in hand, yelling: "I did it, I did it, I'm guilty", who has then proceeded to insist I defend his or her innocence. Peculiar this might be, but for an employment and intellectual property lawyer stranger things have happened. I have been requested to take a case against a company which apparently wrote all its documentation in invisible ink. Only one person in the entire multi-national, I was informed, had the revelatory secret formula.

The majority of client/lawyer difficulties are far from the Woodward/ Whitfield Sharp saga. The Law Society Bible sets out guidelines: a lawyer must refuse to accept instructions which would involve him or her in a breach of law, such as lying as to a client's innocence, or which would result in a solicitor acting in a matter where they would be "professionally embarrassed".

But generally, a more pragmatic approach is needed than the requirement to refuse to take action which he or she believes is solely intended to gratify a client's malice or vindictiveness. More frequently, a solicitor's problems are related to receiving comprehensive instructions and receiving such from the client, without interference from the client's mother, lover, spiritual healer or next door neighbour.

Clients' economy with the truth and telling the story which they think you want to hear can also raise difficulties. An astonishing number of conspiracy theorists have legal problems; MI6 must be recruiting hard, such is their workload, and is it only for the individuals who approach this firm that the KGB remains in operation?

A further challenge is persuading some clients to leave the office; a new facet to their case dawns as they hover on the threshold, prompting the words "Just one more thing ..." Technology has put paid to the glorious entrance of a retainer at an old, established firm who, having been instructed to interrupt an appointment with a notoriously voluble client at a prearranged time with an insurmountable excuse, did so with the words "Sir, the King is here".

At least not all solicitors are such terrible liars. Some of them are good at it. Not so Mrs Whitfield Sharp, who many will think failed to display such decorum in telling her version of the truth. Had Mrs Whitfield Sharp doubted her client's innocence, she should have never agreed to take her on: had she found reason to doubt her client's innocence, or suspect her guilt, at any stage, her duty to the court is to terminate her retainer.

Not only has Mrs Whitfield Sharp jeopardised her former client's chances of a relatively objective appeal, she has also shown herself to be without dignity or discretion both in the eyes of the public and as a professional. Will she work again? Whatever the outcome, this should be a warning to all members of the legal profession - even if it is that drinking and driving wrecks lives.