The Vulnerable Criminal Defence: A social legal examination into why a criminal defence career is unappealing to the younger generation.

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: School of Law


A recent Law Society report highlights, defence solicitors in the southwest will be under pressure to be able to provide this advice to all who require it in 5-10 years' time, because with only 19 of the 263 solicitors aged under 35 there will be a significantly reduced number of available experienced practitioners when the current ageing profession retire. This is due to the failure of the profession to attract young people (under 35), as even those who are drawn to a career in criminal law turn to regulatory or corporate work once qualified, due to low salaries, high debts, stress and lack of support.

This could have a catastrophic effect on the already vulnerable suspects, ability to access advice. Worst case scenario is innocent people found guilty, as there will be no one to fight their corner. Whilst there is considerable literature on the challenges facing solicitors in an austerity era, insufficient attention has been paid to examining why the career is unappealing to young people, what implications this could have, and what can be done to prevent the predicted decline in practitioner numbers.

In an effort to address the gap in knowledge, this project will be the first to seek to use a framework informed by vulnerability theory to empirically examine:
(i) The problem of the lack of young people entering the criminal defence profession and;
(ii) How the career may be made more appealing to young people.

Specifically, the following objectives are identified:
1. Explore why the career is unappealing to the younger generation, with a focus solely on the southwest region.
2. Expose what changes are needed to increase appeal.
3. Analyse potential causal mechanisms underlying the lack of uptake and retention of practitioners, such as the introduction of austerity.
4. Investigate whether in 5-10 years' time a suspect's right to advice could be at risk as a result of the ageing profession, and the wider implications of this.

This in turn will adequately generate social and economic impact for the profession, Government and students. By:
a) Creating guidelines on how the profession can contribute to the economic development of the southwest profession by attracting appeal to the younger generation;
b) Influencing the younger generations tendency to find the career unappealing, by involving them in all stages of the research;
c) Contributing to the understanding of how government policy, including austerity, is impacting upon the criminal justice system;
d) Engaging with a wider regional audience, including the general public, to highlight the long-term potential problems to the profession.

Following a comprehensive literature review of legal and socio-legal literature, the research questions will be addressed by employing a mixed methods approach over two complementary phases.

Phase 1 - Qualitative
In the first instance, an 'online focus group' will be conducted to collect responses to 20-30 carefully worded questions. From a sample of:
a) 10 law students. Recruited from southwest universities via a short intake questionnaire, advertised through universities social media pages.
b) 10 defence solicitors. Recruited by asking Devon and Somerset Law Society to circulate your request on their listserv.

Phase 2 - Quantitative
To complement phase 1, the questions and answers, along with in-depth secondary research, will be used to inform the design of a 'web-based survey' using 'rank order multiple choice and open questions'.
To recruit the sample and generalise findings to the whole population:
a) 'Purposive sampling' will recruit a representative sample of law students under 35 from southwest universities.
b) 'Quota sampling' will recruit 15 defence solicitors from each southwest region, via the same methods used in phase 1.

After a 6-month distribution period, the data will be analysed using 'mathematical' and 'statistical' graphical methods.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000630/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2409845 Studentship ES/P000630/1 01/10/2020 30/09/2024 Susan Elizabeth Rockey