'Lawyer X' marks a sticky spot in criminal justice system



Crime reporter, The Age



The suspect in the police interview room decides he is in desperate need of a lawyer but the trouble is he doesn't know who to call - that is until the kindly detective provides him with a number where he will get "good advice."

The suspect rings and explains his dilemma and the world-weary voice at the other end says, "Just tell the detectives the truth and it will all work out for the best."

Later the overworked legal aid solicitor at court can't believe that any lawyer would have told a client to confess rather than offer the traditional "no comment" response.

And he is right. The phone number the suspect was given was another extension in the police building and the advice he received was from a sergeant well-versed in matters of trickery.

In the criminal justice system everyone is supposed to have a defined role. Police are there to lawfully gather evidence, prosecutors to prosecute, judges to judge and defence lawyers to defend.

But the roles are not always what they seem.

Many years ago police learnt that a hitman had accepted a contract to kill, but they did not know the target, time or location. So a detective "loaded" him with a planted gun, which resulted in a jail term.

It was a corrupt act that may have saved a life.

Defence lawyers are supposed to provide their clients with the best advice and act in their interest within the law. They ask questions but rarely the most important: "Did you do it?". For if the answer is yes, the lawyer cannot knowingly construct a defence on lies.

So such "privileged" conversations are often a little like a dance with the devil, with defences based on the possible rather than the likely or the obvious.

The good lawyers know how to remain professional and impersonal. They deal with their clients in court, in a police station, in prison and in an office. But there a few who get sucked into the underworld and start treating clients as friends - and in more than one case - lovers.

A young lawyer was told by a senior partner the best way to stay out of trouble was to remain totally professional in matters involving trust accounts and attractive clients. "Don't knock off either of 'em," was the advice.

Once they become part of the gang, lawyers lose their professional protection and can be asked or pressured to provide more than just legal advice.

Which brings us to "Lawyer X" - a legal figure who ended up a registered informer for the Victoria Police.

The Herald Sun has published two page one reports on the lawyer and were stopped from publishing a third after police took out a Supreme Court injunction to ban any material that may identity that person.

The trouble with this sort of thing is that when the identity of someone such as Lawyer X is hidden, the inevitable guessing game begins - and two legal identities who are not the subject of the story now fear they could be wrongly suspected of being informers.

Certainly police say the safety of Lawyer X is now a major concern, while the media argue that exploring the story is of public interest. In the end the Supreme Court will make a decision on the argument, possibly as early as Thursday.

So what do we know, or more importantly, what can we say?

A Melbourne lawyer feels trapped, having made the mistake of treating clients as friends. The lawyer believes those friends are exerting pressure to join in criminal conspiracies.

Detectives persuade the lawyer to become a secret source of intelligence.

The lawyer continues to represent clients while talking to police, although as yet there is no suggestion the lawyer sabotaged defences or handed over privileged information.

Regardless, the lawyer is in an ethical minefield as the lines between friends, enemies, clients and police blur.

Sources say the information was general and more about criminal associations than "smoking gun" evidence.

The trouble began when high-ranking officers changed the ground rules and pressured the lawyer to move from an anonymous source to something more, which proved to be a disaster.

Now let's step back a moment. Some think defence lawyers and police are sworn enemies because they oppose each other in court, when in fact many are actually friends.

Police will give lawyers' business cards to suspects while lawyers will steer clients towards police with a reputation for fairness.

And some lawyers talk out of school. A client in a privileged meeting may mention that another crook had confessed to an unrelated crime in a previous jailhouse conversation.

More than once such information has been passed over as a general tip during after-court beers.

In one high-profile case an anonymous tip led police to recover a firearm used in the crime. Some detectives believe the call was made by someone within a well-known city legal firm.

So were police wrong to cultivate the lawyer? Certainly not.

If a priest turned up and said a serial paedophile admitted in the confessional he was about to abduct a child, should the police ignore the information? Of course not.

One policeman said using informers in criminal investigations is equivalent to using manure in the garden.

You can get good results, just make sure you wash your hands when it's all done.