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Amid the law and its jungle

One of the best: Barrister Robert Richter.

One of the best: Barrister Robert Richter. Photo: Jason South

It must be strange to voluntarily spend your working days dealing with the violent, the drug-affected and the dangerously disturbed. And yet this story is not about subeditors, but an equally peculiar group - criminal lawyers.

By that we do not mean lawyers who commit crimes (we will save that for another day), but lawyers who act for clients accused of breaching the criminal code. These breaches can vary from little ripples dealt with in the Magistrates Court to giant sperm whale-like eruptions that end up in the Supreme Court in front of juries and on the front page of the newspapers.

It is the worst secret in the criminal justice system, with lawyers, coppers and crooks well aware of the identity of‘X’. 

In the big cases a top-class lawyer is worth his weight in gold (and usually charges at that rate) while a bad one can get you years in a cell to reflect on your poor choice. While doctors bury their mistakes, lawyers tend to hide theirs behind maximum-security walls.

Robert ''Red Baron'' Richter is one of the best and after he successfully defended Mick Gatto over the charge of murdering underworld hitman Andrew Veniamin, the big man immediately announced, ''Thank God for the jury system, thank God for Robert Richter, a top barrister.'' Such top-quality work does not come cheap and the Gatto defence was rumoured to have cost $400,000.

Mick was so grateful that after a slap-up dinner he headed to a North Melbourne tattooist to have his lawyer's name permanently engraved on his chest, which would have cost him appreciably less than a legal firm charges to photocopy a letter.

When Mark ''Chopper'' Read asked a lawyer how much his defence would cost he was told it would ''not exceed'' the substantial amount he had deposited in the appropriate trust fund.

Which led him to later reflect, ''Lawyers near money are like puppies near slippers. Neither can help themselves. Leave a lawyer near money and he'll end up with it all. Leave a puppy near slippers and he'll chew them into little pieces. They can't help it.''

The colourful Gatto has spent millions on lawyers over the years and found some were more interested in cash than confessions, although he says Richter is the noble exception. ''Unlike many other lawyers, Robert is not a parasite who sees you as a dollar sign,'' he mused in his I, Mick Gatto.

Richter is smart, ruthless and driven. Actually, he should be driven for when he was behind the wheel of a tiny eco car travelling at warp speed down a city lane, this reporter was forced to scamper to the footpath to avoid becoming a road statistic.

We have heard police bag him for his courtroom tactics then see the same police buy him drinks after he defended one of their own on criminal charges.

Richter is a true believer - a committed practitioner who believes in civil liberties, the court system and the philosophy of innocent until proven guilty.

Others in the field are not so idealistic, an issue that has bubbled to the surface over the mysterious Lawyer X, the subject of much media speculation and court consternation in recent weeks.

This is a case, which, depending on your point of view, is either a tidal wave of trouble or a storm in a teacup.

There are about 18,000 legal practitioners in Victoria and the vast majority would need Google Maps to find a criminal court.

Most prefer the more predictable and lucrative commercial side of the law where clients wear designer suits rather than outlaw motorcycle gang colours and pay via direct debit rather than Gladstone bags filled with cash.

One of the better-known practitioners is Bernie ''the Attorney'' Balmer who represents anyone charged with offences ranging from shoplifting to contract killings. ''It is the most interesting area of the law although you work in the dustbin of life,'' he says. ''You are getting out and meeting people, not sitting behind a desk sending emails to pimply faced lawyers.''

He sees no moral dilemma in defending someone where the evidence suggests the accused did the deed.

''This business is based on some black and white rules. I maintain we don't win cases, the coppers f--- them up. We just point out the holes in the case and then it is up to the umpire to decide.''

He said most cases ended up in a negotiated outcome, with 80 per cent resulting in a guilty plea. ''Clients expect miracles when often the best result is to minimise the damage.'' But what of the case where he gets an acquittal when he knows his client is likely to reoffend? ''I think, who has let the system down? Not me. I just did my job.''

Just as a surgeon should not judge the moral worth of the patient on the operating table, criminal lawyers are duty bound to do their best. But can they go too far?

Balmer says that while the facts in criminal cases may be in dispute, a lawyer's ethics are not. ''You have to know where the line is. I tell my staff we walk on top of the fence so make sure you don't fall on the wrong side.'' He says a trap is to socialise with clients and lose objectivity. ''You must always remember they are not your mates.''

Or as one experienced lawyer tells his new staff, ''Always keep a desk between you and the client.'' When one barrister became a judge, some of his old clients wanted to take him out for a slap-up lunch to celebrate. Sensibly he declined.

But there are a few rogues - one has made half a career out of pretending to be a mate to some of Australia's most notorious crooks, crying crocodile tears at gangland funerals when the mood strikes.

But his idea of mateship stopped well short of providing mate's rates, as his bills were often more inflated than the Goodyear Blimp.

Providing sound legal advice is one thing but providing rat cunning suggestions to beat the system is quite another.

A once taut and trim underworld hitman turned prosecution witness told police his lawyer ''suggested that I put on some weight whilst I was awaiting my trial. She suggested that any gain in weight would confuse the witness description of the gunman being fit and fast. I followed her advice and put on more than 30 kilos.'' While it may have doubled his cholesterol it did nothing to reduce his culpability. He later pleaded guilty to three murders.

In another case, a lawyer advised his client to wear glasses in court to look more like a librarian than lout. The career armed robber had perfect vision yet sat in the dock wearing clear glass spectacles with make-up concealing his hand tattoos. He got eight years.

One lawyer had to be reminded to remove an outlaw motorcycle gang ring before appearing in a criminal trial. His client was acquitted although years later the lawyer was jailed on burglary charges.

Which brings us back to Lawyer X, whose identity has been suppressed in the Supreme Court.

This is one of those stories that leave much of the public baffled because of what can't be said. The dots are so far apart that Mr Squiggle couldn't join them.

The trouble is, it is the worst-kept secret in the criminal justice system, with lawyers, coppers and crooks well aware of the identity of the X.

Police say further publicity will put this person's life in danger while the media (particularly the Herald Sun) says the public deserves the truth over whether key convictions could be overturned due to matters we can't discuss.

Police say they have not done the wrong thing and their detectives have not been ''clever dicks''. They also say the matter has been reviewed internally and by the Ombudsman, resulting in new guidelines, although we can't tell you about them either.

We can say it is now subject of an Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission investigation though we can't say what they are investigating. In other words the Herald Sun suggests this could be a Watergate while police say it is more like Fountain Gate.

Yet there are still questions that should be answered over some of the investigations linked to the lawyer.

Such as why witnesses needed to be flown overseas to be interviewed, why promising leads fell flat and why serious cases were derailed when any fool should have seen the tracks ahead had already been ripped up.

Which means someone got away with murder. And no amount of suppression orders will change that.

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