Interview

A life of crime

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Legal Cheek’s Aishah Hussain chats to Chris Daw QC about life at the bar, his newly released book and venture into ‘vlawging’

Chris Daw QC

Chris Daw QC’s new book, Justice on Trial, has received a mostly positive reception. He thinks this is due to the public having an appetite for the subject matter which has received a lot of media attention as of late.

The coronavirus crisis has magnified debate around prison reform while the Black Lives Matter movement has thrust questions around racial imbalance in the criminal justice system into prominence.

We’ve hit a sort of ‘reset’ point in society. People have realised that some aspects do need to change and have become, perhaps, more receptive to new ideas like the ones Daw proposes in his book.

The COVID-19 lockdown has made us realise that we can do a lot more remotely than we might have thought. For Daw — a serious crime silk at Millennium Chambers and member of Lincoln House Chambers — remote-working has been “liberating”. He’s not on the go as much, travelling to court or to client conferences, and is able to maintain a sense of discipline around his diary, he tells me when we speak.

More broadly, technology and more specifically, remote monitoring, offers creative solutions to improving the criminal justice system, as Daw addresses in his book. The idea is simple: prison is costly; and by embracing technology, and the so-called “virtual prison”, we can remove non-violent offenders, who let’s be honest, “don’t learn anything useful” in physical imprisonment, and keep track of them as they go about their lives. They could go to work or through education, attend counselling or rehabilitation, and “just be more productive” than they are behind brick walls and barbed wire.

Interestingly, where he doesn’t see tech has much of a place is virtual hearings for criminal trials. “There are far too many low-level cases going through the courts that should be diverted away from the system and dealt with in other forms,” he tells me. “By using online courts for criminal cases you’re enabling a system that is already broken. Why online? Well, why do it at all? It’s a waste of time.” This narrative continues in his book.

Justice on Trial is a manifesto, if you like, proposing radical reform to the criminal justice system. It’s at breaking point, he argues, and to break free of the cycle of crime, perpetuated as much by our criminal justice system as by those behind its bars, we must rip up the playbook and start again. Daw lobbies mainly for three things: we should close all prisons but for a few inmates; legalise drugs (under government control); and put a stop to children being tried in the adult system.

Headline-grabbing, that’s for sure, and an ideology the far-right would have a field day opposing. But make no mistake: Daw is no apologist for violence and antisocial behaviour. His views do not arise from some ‘soft’ liberal perspective. He is only interested in hard facts and what works to reduce crime and prevent recidivism. Daw’s ideas are simple; they are steeped in history and intertwined with anecdotes and lived experience from his many cases and travels.

All in all, Daw presents a compelling case for reform. His ‘blueprint’ for society will make readers question the dogma they’ve been fed for years. Prison is the “default soundbite” of politicians standing for election, for example, while the ‘War on Drugs’ in modern times is, simply put, political point-scoring. It’s no wonder why then that the Prime Minister, Home Secretary and Justice Secretary top the list of people he’d most like to read his book.

Does he think his ideas will ever become reality? The answer is, sadly (or whichever way you view it), no. He doesn’t see there being motivation beyond the mainstream “lock ‘em up” mentality nor for radical drug reform. But he has faith it will succeed in parts. We’re likely to see the scaling back of drug classification to some extent, he predicts, and maybe even change in our approach to incarceration, particularly among young offenders.

The 2020 Legal Cheek Chambers Most List

Before he carved out a career in serious crime work, Daw studied and completed pupillage in Manchester. He started “at the bottom of the criminal bar”, accepting instruction on matters ranging from shoplifting to sex work. He soon progressed over a 20-year period to take on serious and organised crime cases, including murder, and numerous forms of financial crime. It wasn’t until he took silk in 2013 that his practice diversified and he began to accept instruction on “an eclectic mix” of ‘general crime’ — cases ranging from robbery to rape.

Daw has represented notorious drug barons through to premier league footballers. He takes on fewer cases now, about four to six each year, in contrast to the 20 or so he’d have on the go as a junior, but they’re far more complex and tend to last much longer. He tells me it took him just over a year to take Justice on Trial from initial concept to print; all while continuing to accept instruction and shoot a BBC documentary.

Though he has spent the years since he took silk doing private work, I was curious to ask whether he would begin his career in criminal law now, as the system is today, public sector cuts and all? The Bar Council, for example, found recently that almost four in ten criminal barristers are unsure if they will still be practising law by the end of next year. “I still would,” he responds resolutely, adding: “Being a criminal lawyer — it’s one of those things that’s either in your blood or not.”

Daw became “hooked” on the criminal law career path as a teen sitting in on crown court cases in the public gallery. “I became addicted to the whole process,” he reflects. It was never about the money, or lack thereof: 20-year-old Daw made just £9,000 in his first year of practice. “Anyone deciding on a career in criminal practice because they’ll make money from it is looking at the wrong job — there’s never been a guarantee of making money at the bar,” he says. What will get students far in this line of work is, ultimately, passion. That alone is what got Daw through what could sometimes stretch to 70 hours a week of work as a junior barrister.

He expresses sadness at the thought that youngsters could be put off a career in criminal law. “We need bright new blood in criminal law from diverse backgrounds,” he says. “I think it’s a real shame people are put off — they should go for it and that’s really important.”

To help them on their way, Daw has, again, alongside his other pursuits, entered the world of ‘vlawging’. Some of the content on his YouTube channel, which has amassed over 12,000 views, by the way, focuses on current affairs (there are snippets of some of the television interviews he has given) but the rest is chock-full with application tips on how to secure pupillage. Daw tells me he even takes video requests and follows these up if he receives enough interest.

So what’s next for Britain’s top criminal barrister? The epilogue to Justice on Trial touches on the dark web and internet of crime, something that Daw says he is fascinated to see play out in the years ahead and how law enforcement adapts to this new underworld of criminal activity. It could be the focus of a sequel, he teases, adding that he does not intend for this to be his last foray in the world of writing. He concludes:

“I enjoyed the process; and it has been rewarding to see the impact the book has had on debate. If I can contribute to just getting people talking about criminal justice and potential reform in a serious way then I consider that to be worthwhile.”

Chris Daw QC is a serious crime silk at Millennium Chambers. His new book, Justice on Trial, is out now.

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