Valerie CharbitHow can you defend the guilty? Local barrister makes the case.

Interviewed by Jo Reynolds

How long have you lived in the area and what brought you here?

Since 1993. I liked Notting Hill but couldn't afford it so looked further along the line and chose here because of its commutability. I practice all over the South East circuit (of courts) so need to get everywhere. I've moved from one street to another; this is my third. I love the green spaces. I was beside myself when I discovered Ravenscourt Park.

Waiting for the judge's verdict, you can hear your heart beating.

Are you the first lawyer in your family?

Yes. My mother was the first person in the family to get a degree – in psychology.

How long did it take to train to become a barrister?

A three-year law degree, then a year studying for the Bar exams, then a year of pupilage at my chambers. I've been there since I started in 1994. There were approximately 20 barristers then and 80 now, a third women.

Why law?

It was a toss up between law and social work. I did law as a third A-level and went to Sheffield University to study law. I loved Yorkshire and would have stayed but back then you had to come to London to study for the Bar. My mother would have preferred me to be a solicitor because it was financially more secure than being a barrister, especially a criminal barrister. Crime is one of the least well-paid areas of the Bar as most cases are publicly funded by legal aid. Everyone thinks barristers live the high life but some of the courts are so poorly funded I take all my food and drink because there's no canteen. I've walked into some court toilets and reconsidered whether I really need to go!

What sort of cases do you work on?

I work in many areas, murder, fraud, health and safety, sexual offences, mental health and professional disciplinary cases. I prosecute and defend in equal measure. I believe I am more objective for doing both. I also sit as a judge on mental health tribunals.

Do you prefer prosecuting or defending?

I prefer defending a touch more. Repeated sexual cases are difficult because you don’t want to spend too much time thinking about child sexual offences or sexual cases.

What happens if you think your client's guilty?

That's the classic dinner party question. Can you defend someone if you know they're guilty? Yes. Your duty to not mislead the court is paramount and you can only represent them on the basis of what they tell you. If they tell you they're guilty, you must advise them to plead guilty. If they refuse to accept your advice you can’t put forward a positive defence suggesting that they are not guilty but you can insist that the prosecution proves the case because the burden of proof is on them and not the accused. They must have a fair trial.

Has any case made you feel particularly proud?

I once represented a boy with Asperger's who'd been convicted of murdering another child. Later, in prison, he threw boiling water on another prisoner and was prosecuted for GBH with intent. I defended him in that case and persuaded the jury he had no intention to cause GBH. As a result he was transferred to a medium secure hospital where he should have been all along. I got a message from his family: Last night he looked at the stars – because he could. I felt happy that he had finally been treated more fairly.

What's a typical working day?

The alarm often goes off at 6. I walk the dogs, and my husband or I take the kids to school. I spend most days in court and get back home at 7 to see the kids if I have no evening work events. At 9.30 what I call my second shift starts and I prepare for the next day till midnight.

Aren't you exhausted?

I am pretty tired but I make sure to recharge at the weekend. I'm a founder member of the Park Club, where I like to swim outside. I'm that working mother plagued by worries about not being there enough for my children but I couldn't do any of it without my husband. He's my rock. He allows all my work to happen by covering for me even though he works too.

Courts are serious places but does the job ever make you laugh?

Maybe not in the court but in the recess we do have a laugh. On particularly stressful days I come home and put on a show for my children, putting on different voices for all the characters I have met in my day and exaggerating the difficult parts of the day to try and pass on some life lessons.

If someone crosses you in public, for example, jumps the queue, what's the best way to win the argument?

I don't argue in public. I'm all for reconciliation and peaceful living.

If you lose a case, are you a sore loser?

We all lose and I always think about if I could have done more. I'm a perfectionist, and you learn something new on every case. When you stand there waiting for the judge's verdict you can hear your heart beating. You invest months in a case and often get to know your clients well.

Do clients ever become friends?

There are codes of conduct that must be observed. We're taught to be professional but inevitably you root for your client. Ultimately it's about trying to save their lives. I don't socialise with clients but once I represented a teacher. A student had made a sexual complaint that would have ended her career. The teacher was exonerated of all charges and she invited me to a celebratory dinner.

Are sex cases on the increase?

It seems so since Jimmy Savile. Many more people have felt able to disclose. Many crown courts prosecute large numbers of historic and current sex cases.

Does seeing the worst in people make you despair?

As a mother I feel more protective over my children due to my work. At work, I don't use my married name and I choose not to name my children online, but I've never been threatened. The job teaches you to see the good in everyone and always look for the positive in people. You find a way to connect. Even a guilty child pornographer wanted to give me a hug because he was grateful.

Who's your favourite lawyer on film or TV?

I'm a big fan of Erin Brockovich, the Julia Roberts film, and (TV series) Ally McBeal. Some of my colleagues would question the legal accuracy but I think they're great fun.

If you weren't a lawyer, what career would you have chosen?

I'd write radio plays. I did an MA at RADA and Kings (College). I met my husband because he did drama at university as well. Courtrooms can be dramatic at times. I particularly enjoy writing my closing speeches and I try to connect with the jury by thinking how they would relate to the case. Or I'd be a chocolatier. My husband and I did lots of chocolate courses. We make sweets with the kids.

Thank you, Valerie. It's been a real pleasure to meet you.

Interviewed November 2016

Headshot by Teresa Walton ©

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