Is the Counsel Innocent or Guilty?: The Lawyer’s Conundrum

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Can we ever ascertain if a lawyer defending someone who is guilty is a greedy, cold, criminal or just another person doing their job? It seems impossible because, well, it probably is.

You can never truly anticipate what seemingly mundane events of a regular Wednesday will end up leaving a profound impact on you, which is why it feels strange to write this knowing the inspiration comes from a fight I had with my father. He was just making conversation, getting ready to leave for work when he just happened to say that he had been offered the case of man accused of fowl, inappropriate behaviour. To his surprise, and mine, this somehow sent me into an existential frenzy. Suddenly, I was living a life where my father (a criminal lawyer) was defending, well, criminals. I could not reconcile with the duality of his existence, as my father and as a person who (sometimes) defends bad people. What followed was an argument that fizzled out after the client backed out (and subsequently restored peace in our household).  However, this moment of doubt about whether or not my father’s job was morally unobjectionable made me take a rather hard look at the field of law in its entirety. Are lawyers good people? Is law ethical?

After quite a bit of research, I still have not arrived at a conclusive answer. Ethics are principles that distinguish the good, the bad and the ugly. Laws are, supposedly, enforced to maintain goodwill. Violating a law will land you in jail, which indicate a slender grasp on the whole concept of ethics and good moral values, etc. And yet, in their day-to-day execution and application, law practioners end up at odds with what is ethical and right. As a person on the outside looking in, anyone who is knowingly and willingly defending the honor of a guilty person is clearly in the wrong.

“Presumed innocent until proven guilty”

-Sir William Garrow, 1791

And this is where all the lines start to blur up, because, the undeniable fault of anyone defending someone of a crime they did, in fact, commit, and the right to counsel being universally essential are both simultaneously true. Without a trial, neither innocence nor guilt can be proved and this requires lawyers to rely more on detached pragmatism and professionalism and less on moral ethos. But does that make them bad people?

“The whole foundation of our legal structure is based on the maxim that ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ An advocate, as an officer of the court is bound not only by this but also by the Advocates Act which states that without justifiable cause a counsel shall not refuse brief of any client/litigants/accused on the presumption of him being guilty. Even article 21 of our constitution provides that no person shall be denied right to life or personal freedom with due procedure of law.”

-Adv. Naman Mishra, practicing criminal lawyer, Courts of Delhi

“Public prosecutors are public authorities who, on behalf of society and in the public interest, ensure the application of the law where the breach of the law carries a criminal sanction, taking into account both the rights of the individual and the necessary effectiveness of the criminal justice system”

 To counter the actions of a criminal defendant, we have public prosecutors. Once again, from an outsider’s point of view, someone fighting to attempt the to prove the guilt of someone who could very well be guilty, seems to be the bigger, better person. But this scenario, too, flips, in the case of someone who turns out to have been wrongly accused. Here, our good ol’ criminal lawyer emerges a hero. Neither party can seem to stick to any status for long, and end up oscillating between both.

“As an agent of the judicial process, ensuring that those deserving punishment don’t go scot-free definitely makes you feel empowered and on a higher moral plank but in reality, both me and the defence lawyer are just following what is right and clearly defined in the Advocates’ Act as to what is the role and responsibility of a counsel. This image that a defence lawyer is attempting to prove innocence of the guilty strips away a lot of depth and dynamic from the situation and should be avoided”

-A public prosecutor from Patiala House Court, Delhi, who requested anonymity

While criminal lawyers are the most frequently topics discussions like this, legal players of the corporate should not be overlooked. More often than not, a crime involves two parties. On the other hand, the sheer magnitude of the ramifications of a financial misdemeanour blankets so many parties, it is almost impossible to keep count. The verdicts of such cases tends to put into effect a cycle of betterment or ruination. And again, the character on any lawyer involved gets drenched in a big question mark.

“It is natural to be curious of whether people like me feel guilty at times while defending corporate moneybags who have been accused of crimes like tax evasion, bank loan default, which essentially is public money, and other scams.  Well…..a corporate client is just like any other client be it from a civil dispute or a criminal charge or even family discord. Like all other accused he/she deserves able representing in court of law and all other attributes of a fair trial. To presume that somebody is guilty by virtue of being rich is turning the essence of law upside down and doing grave injustice to this hallowed institution of justice. Yes, as lawyers, we do need to see that we don’t become an instrument in the hands of an accused and an accomplice in any injustice committed but then our education and our training has equipped us with the necessary weaponry to negotiation our way without compromising on professional ethics”

-Sanjay Batra, corporate lawyer, High Court of Delhi

Being a good lawyer demands detachment from any emotive motivations. Being a good lawyer demands that, unless and until you are in a situation where you cannot objectively devote yourself fully to the matter at hand, you cannot refuse someone who approaches you. Being a good lawyer demands that you defend bad people. The only inference that can be derived from this is that for there to be an overlap between good lawyers and good people, the parameters need to be slightly altered.

The primary context of whatever has been said so far is an outsider’s perspective, people for whom incidents like these are mere headlines. When you stand to lose or gain from the verdict of a trial, who is the underdog you root for? Is the person on the stand an innocent victim of circumstance? Or is it someone for whom ‘consequence’ has been interchangeable with ‘money’? Is the public prosecutor truly representing the everyday man, attempting to correct imbalance caused by skewed resources? Or is the criminal lawyer a vigilante of sorts, striving to protect the innocence of an innocent?

“I remember reading about some popular criminal case, people were taking sides and the majority had made up their mind that the defending party is guilty. The outcome of the case was not guilty. Does that mean the defendant was really not guilty or were they just rich enough to afford the best counsel and walk away without a scratch despite being guilty? While we do know that it is a lawyer’s job to provide the right counsel to their client and do their best to prove their innocence, would it be wise for a lawyer to represent a client who they know might be guilty. I am not saying that the lawyers shouldn’t provide representation to people who “seem guilty”, because there might be a chance that they are in fact innocent. Our constitution works on the presumption of innocence, “innocent until proven guilty”, so it is up to the prosecution to prove the defendant’s crime and the defence to prove their client’s innocence. (Something about burden of proof.) There is a very fine line that the lawyer has to tread in this case, and whatever they choose to do, in my opinion, does not say anything about them as an individual as they are just doing their job.

-A second year DU student who requested to remain anonymous

So far, it seems, any lawyer who is true to his profession cannot remain true to his moral values. Then, ideally, the second-best option is to be an ethical lawyer (not person, lawyer). For once, we can consult the conventional mandates of right and wrong without ending ourselves up in an eternal conundrum. The only way someone fighting against the very fundamental of right and wrong can strive for redemption is to be honest in the process. Deal with witnesses fairly, do not tamper with evidence, ensure in any way you can that the integrity of the trial and the investigation isn’t compromised.

While all this would certainly exempt a person from any ethical misdeed on paper, the question of whether lawyers are, in essence, truly good people or instruments of crime and societal menace is something we will continue to wrestle with, at least for the foreseeable future.


Naina Priyadarshi Mishra


Naina is, at any given moment, a little bit disorganized. In her spare time, she reads, then reads some more, and writes, then writes some more. She also obsesses over music (especially Taylor Swift's), teen dramas, sitcoms, and art of all kind. A One Direction enthusiast, a somewhat consistent keeper of journal, and she can play guitar (still working on that one).

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