Neutral Partisans are professionals who have disregarded moralistic considerations when working for a client. Certainly for lawyers, it is often regarded as a necessity as everyone is entitled to a fair trial and personal opinions could risk jeopardising impartiality. This necessity to be morally neutral is twisted by ideas of “standard conception” which is a commonly held belief that a lawyer’s duty to their client allows them to uphold morally reprehensible practices. Some lawyers encourage that image through hyper-zealous commitment to furthering their client’s case. I suppose as with most things it depends entirely on the individual, but the debate about the generalities involved rages on.
It all comes back to the classic question that lawyers get asked extremely often: “How do you defend someone who is guilty?” The answer is that they don’t. Barristers are bound by the cab-rank rule to represent any one who instructs them, but only if the defendant claims they are not guilty. A guilty plea will not be retracted by the time it gets to the courtroom. It will result in a simple mitigation trial. Still, some people cannot reject their gut instinct and it is that which the lawyer has to attempt to disregard.
Giovanni de Stefano, affectionately named the “Devil’s Advocate” embodies the argument; neutral partisan or hyper-zealous? His controversial collection of clients, described as a “’veritable rogues’ gallery of the most notorious criminals” has made him infamous. De Stefano has defended criminals from Harold Shipman, to Saddam Hussein – some of the world’s most hated men. Why?
Neutral Partisanship; he is “duty bound” to do so and if he is asked he cannot refuse. Which is true, though it is rare that one particular lawyer is sought out by so many dangerous men. He seems strangely attached to this reputation but defends it thus; “We do not defend Snow White. Snow White has committed no offence, unless she is with the seven perverts. In which case she will need our services. So if you do not commit crime… you will never come across me… In fact, it’s best to avoid me, as otherwise it means you need my help”.
The cab-rank rule does not exclude the idea that the barrister is not devoid of morality. De Stefano similarly does not pretend to remain as neutral as you would believe he had to. Saddam Hussein was actually one of the lawyer’s good friends. Could you have defended a stranger who indirectly had done such awful things? Could you have defended a friend who had done the same? More likely the latter. Emotional attachment creates mental loopholes and forgiveness, making De Stefano’s career path less of an emotionless feat than first envisaged. Rather than defending a war criminal he was just defending a friend.
The Guardian interviewed De Stefano about his involvement with Ian Brady and his vehement words left his impartiality more than questionable, where he stated, “I acted for Ian Brady, and was honoured to do so because I was acting for him in his quest to die. That fucker should have died long ago for what he did and for what he continues to believe in. I told him that he should die, I would be willing to put a bullet in his head if the state ordered me to.” Comments like that could be described as cause lawyering, furthering one’s own believes and ideals through the format of the courtroom.
If even the most apparently neutral of all lawyers can still be tempted by his own ulterior motives, evil or saintly, what does that say for the rest of us? His pride and zealous attitude to his criminal friends does nothing to improve the lawyer’s image as anything but the butt of dry humour. We are all human, it is understandable that lawyers sometimes find themselves struggling to set aside their personal views, but putting someone in a position of power certainly does not exempt them from being morally accountable.
When the Devil’s Advocate can be moved to disgust by some people, is a slightly more conventional individual ever going to be able to facilitate true justice?
(c) Emily Lanham, 2013