I read with interest Samira Taghavi online about the recent Supreme Court decision exonerating Alan Hall. She concludes that criminal defence lawyers are vilified, yet vital to the administration of justice.
Having just finished a high-profile trial, I came across this online: "I was on a jury for a sexual assault trial and Ms Priest was one of the defence lawyers. I understand the job of a defence lawyer and agree everyone deserves a fair defence. She, however, is an utter piece of s***."
This is not the first vicious comment I've received. It's borne of ignorance. This sort of vitriol falls under the umbrella of a belief that criminal defence lawyers are defending the indefensible: "How do you defend someone who is guilty?"
Firstly, I acknowledge the pain of victims and their families. The criminal justice system is necessarily focused on determining a defendant's guilt and is not sympathetic to stress and trauma. There is an inevitable and necessary conflict between a complainant who accuses a defendant of criminal behaviour and a defendant who denies this.
The role of a criminal barrister as defence counsel is a tough one. We give our all as a defendant's liberty is at stake. As is apparent from this comment, despite this, I am part of an unpopular profession. As someone once said to me, you hate us until you need us. I hope to help people understand our role and how we can "act for those who are guilty".
We don't know whether people are guilty.
The police charge a person but it is quite some time until we see the evidence against that person. In New Zealand, a person is innocent until and unless they are proven guilty.
I believe in this system as I do not want to see people imprisoned because the police think they committed a crime without it being proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
Even once I get the evidence and if it looks like my client may well have done the crime, he or she may tell me that they are innocent, or that things happened in a different way. They may have a defence such as self-defence or insanity or consent for example that needs to be tested in the trial process.
The point is, I was not present when the alleged offending happened. I simply cannot know what happened.
Most offending, in my experience, is not black or white but shades of grey - there is often another side of the story to be told. Part of my job is to tell it.
Secondly, it is not our job to judge or to decide guilt. There is a judge or a jury who is tasked with working out what happened. We act for the defendant to put his or her side of the story. We cannot just trust the police have it right either because they too are not decision-makers. Also, they sometimes get it wrong and occasionally fabricate evidence.
When people are facing very lengthy terms of imprisonment as you do with sexual violation, serious wounding, class A drug supply or homicide, it is crucial that only guilty people are convicted.
Thirdly, all defendants need a lawyer to speak on their behalf as they go through the criminal justice system. I can assure you that a good lawyer will ensure that the process goes as smoothly as it can, that the timeframes are kept to and that the rules of law are followed to make the process fair for all involved.
Put another way, would you want a defendant to represent themselves when they question witnesses? Or a lawyer? The criminal justice process continues whether or not there are lawyers involved. It is often delayed, and convictions overturned on appeal, when people represent themselves without lawyers. They just don't know the rules they have to follow in the criminal justice process.
I act on instructions from clients - whether they plead not guilty and go to trial or plead guilty. I then make submissions to the court about them to help at a sentencing hearing.
So, how can I be a good lawyer if I defend those who are guilty?
The question is hard to answer because it inherently misunderstands my role.
If I only represented those who I decided were innocent, the system would fail.
It's my job to be their voice in the criminal justice system.
It is a privilege when people trust me to help them navigate the criminal justice system which can be scary and all-consuming for them and their families.
Even the guilty deserve a good lawyer- and I think you will agree that the innocent do too.
• Emma Priest is a specialist criminal barrister admitted to the Bar in 1999.