The pandemic has helped speed long-overdue technological progress within the legal system, says senior criminal lawyer John Roberts.
John, managing partner with Gullands in Maidstone, welcomes the increased use of video hearings in both crown and magistrates’ courts over the past year and says that after initial uncertainty and tension about how to use technology to work remotely during the first lockdown, his staff have risen to the challenge and moved on quickly. This was particularly useful for Gullands and their client, who was one of the 39 former sub postmasters cleared by the Court of Appeal following the Post Office Horizon IT scandal.
“We have embraced technology and are ditching paper files to go digital, a huge leap forward, speeding up the process of law and better for the environment,” said John happily.
Briefing visits to prisoners have also been stopped, to avoid contact during the pandemic, and John said he and his staff have got used to online interviews via video units within a prison. Lawyers have been allowed to continue working almost from the start of the first lockdown, because they are considered key workers.
All this is a long way from the first years of John’s legal career – which began after he had completed a management sciences degree at Manchester University. He went back to college in the late 1980s and qualified as a lawyer in 1992. He met his wife while working in London and moved to Kent in the late-1990s, to join Clarke Kiernan in Tonbridge. He joined Gullands in 2001 as head of the criminal department and has worked there since.
He is now responsible for Gullands’ 70 staff and two offices in Maidstone and Gravesend. Gullands is a full-service law firm which is rooted in its town centre/high street tradition spanning over 100 years, so the lockdown has also been hard for their many clients who like to pop in to discuss matters face-to-face.
I ask why he chose to move from business management to the law and he hardly pauses in giving the answer, saying passionately: “Law is about people. I wanted a career in which I was surrounded by intellect, a job which challenged me and in which I could make a difference. I have always been fascinated by psychology – why people do things – and criminal law in particular has allowed me to pursue this.”
Despite his senior management position, John still enjoys an active role in the law, regularly defending clients in court and working on complex cases which continue to challenge him.
When he’s not working, John enjoys walking the family dog and spending time with his wife and three daughters. His eldest, Katie is 23 and has joined Gullands as a paralegal, his middle daughter is a student veterinary nurse and his youngest is studying for her GCSEs.
As a young man, John loved to throw on a backpack and travel the world. He has visited every continent except South America, but says he is now content to “stay local” – which is probably just as well, considering the year we’ve all had.