The Good Lawyer Project
In a perfect world, a client charged with a criminal offence should be judged by evidence and that alone. However, it is widely accepted that “first impressions” can play a role in the courtroom when it comes to how clients are perceived.
In January, a judge in Otago sent seven defendants home to get changed before their hearings because of their attire.
“You’re in a courtroom, not a beach,” the group, who were wearing jandals, shorts and singlets, were told.
A change of clothes can be a beneficial part of rectifying any misperception, especially if a client’s case is covered by the media and they are exposed to the public.
However, not everyone has the means to buy a new suit for a court appearance.
To address this problem, criminal lawyers Emma Priest and Susan Gray founded The Good Lawyer in 2016 after going into private practice. The project aims to encourage lawyers to donate clothing and books that will help clients, both in court and if they go to prison.
With 15 years of experience in the criminal law sector, Ms Priest is a specialist criminal barrister and appears on all criminal matters. She has worked in the Public Defence Service, and has represented clients on both sides of the courtroom as a Crown prosecutor and a defence lawyer and also provides legal aid.
Susan Gray has 25 years of experience in the criminal law sector, also appearing on all criminal matters. Like Ms Priest, she has also worked as both a Crown Prosecutor and as a defence lawyer and provides legal aid.
Both currently practise and wanted to establish long-term projects that they could run alongside their busy work days. “Our first two projects are Shirt on Your Back and The Good Book Project – we have donated over 2,000 books and 250 shirts to date”, says Ms Gray.
The Good Book Project was Emma’s first endeavour. Donated books were given to prisoners giving them exposure to new ideas and to think about human stories, both similar and different to their own, and helps them pass the time in a more constructive way.
And the clothing initiative has its own particular benefits.
“We recognised the effect that wearing a shirt had on prisoners in two ways,” says Susan of Shirt on Your Back.
“Firstly, in terms of perception by jurors in jury trials and the potential for adverse judgment whether consciously or unconsciously which could impact on a fair trial. In terms of matters where the media were present, this extends to the general public and their perception of offenders.
“Secondly, there is a psychological impact on a defendant in terms of their presentation in court. The lack of a proper shirt brings feelings of inadequacy and difference in an already stressful environment.”
The appeal for the two women was that they could help remedy some of these problems directly. “We are simply two barristers who contribute in a simple way on a regular and sustainable basis,” says Ms Gray.
The response to both the Good Book Project and Shirt On Your Back has been overwhelmingly positive. “People have been amazingly generous. We have had brand new shirts donated, others have donated entire book collections. Donators have included lawyers, real estate agents, students, judges, summer clerks and administrative staff.”
The feedback from prisoners and clients has been rewarding. “Many prisoners remark that it is the first time they have worn a shirt and would love to be able to keep them – there is a confidence that comes with people dressed appropriately for the court environment,” she says.
One client says: “Having a nice shirt to wear in court makes us feel more civilised. Not the odd one out in the courtroom.”
And another inmate who received some books says: “If I have a good book to dive into it makes the time go faster. Stops me looking at the clock. We have some long lock-ups.”
While The Good Lawyer is not yet nationwide – it’s currently only servicing Auckland where both women are based – it has received a lot of interest from lawyers all over New Zealand.
Due to the positive feedback, the next step is considering how to work collaboratively with contributors around New Zealand over the next year. “We do have nationwide ambitions, but hope to address corrections reform on a much more fundamental level”, says Ms Gray.
As the programme aims to provide long-term, educational and beneficial projects, Emma and Susan have also been working collaboratively with a professor from Auckland University. “Discussions are underway to offer a series of interactive lectures on a single topic at Auckland Prison. Subjects will range from science to drama, drawing to psychology with a focus on problem-solving and prisoner participation.”
If you would like to donate to either The Good Book or Shirt On Your Back initiatives, both clothing and books can be donated at Blackstone Chambers, 14 Wyndham Street, Auckland CBD. Drop-off points are also available in Bayswater and Mt Eden by arrangement. For more information go to the Good Lawyer website.
Last updated on the 2nd March 2018