An Interview with Philippa Southwell - Criminal Defence Lawyer at Birds Solicitors

Philippa Southwell

Philippa Southwell is Criminal Defence and Human Trafficking/ Modern Slavery Solicitor at Birds Solicitors. Her main area of practice is defending victims of human trafficking who have been forced into criminality and who have been convicted or prosecuted of criminal offences. She is recognised as one of the leading lawyers in this specialist field.

What made you decide to study law?
Since my late teens I started doing work experience within law. In my spare time I used to go and watch Crown Court trials. I have always been captivated by the legal process and the criminal justice system.  I was fascinated with the dichotomies that permeate the profession. I always wanted to be an advocate and be able to fight for people. 

Why did you choose criminal defence as a specialism?
I have always felt that your liberty is the single most important and fundamental right you can have. Many of my clients are vulnerable defendants and being able to fight and argue on their behalf I have always found rewarding.  
Within my criminal defence work I specialised in defending victims of Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking. This is a new and complex area of law and I have been conducting research over many years on forced criminality. I am interested in how the justice system deals with criminal culpability in the context of forced criminal exploitation and how we protect the rights of these individuals.

What does your role involve?
I have a busy criminal practice which encompasses a whole spectrum of serious criminal work, including violent and sexual offences, such as rape, indecent images and extreme pornography cases, false imprisonment, kidnap, robbery, drugs, fraud, murder, corruption, human trafficking and child cruelty cases. I also have a large appellate case load and regularly advise on appeals against conviction and sentence in relation to applications to both the Court of Appeal and the Criminal Cases Review Commission. I defend all sorts of criminal cases, but a large portion of my clients are victims of modern slavery.  I am regularly at court or in prison with my clients preparing for their trials or appeals against conviction.  I also regularly train students, Solicitors, Barristers and other professionals on the law surrounding human trafficking and modern slavery. I am involved in educational documentaries on modern slavery and research projects on forced criminality and human trafficking.

What do you find to be the most challenging parts of your job?
When I have to fight against the system, where my clients have been unlawfully prosecuted and convicted of criminal offences. Every day they are incarcerated can be detrimental and you are fighting against the clock.  It is also challenging learning to deal with individuals who have been impacted and affected by very serious events. Many are torture abuse suffers, sexual abuse suffers and survivors of extreme physical violence.  It is challenging learning to deal with those who inflict this and also those victims affected by it.  You need to remain balanced and measured. 

What are the most rewarding parts of your job?
Every case is rewarding when you do your best for your client. Fighting for vulnerable  individuals who do not have a voice and assisting in giving them their liberty and life back, helping them break away from exploitative  situations and ensuring they have access to the support they need and are entitled to.

What has been the highlight of your career so far?
Every time I get a conviction over turned, or get a prosecution dropped or run a successful defence at trial, it is gratifying. I am fortunate enough to have successfully represented a client in a Landmark Court of Appeal case  R v L & Ors [2013] EWCA Crim 991; [2013] 2 Cr App R 23,  which is now the leading authority on non- punishment and criminalisation of victims of human trafficking.

What advice would you give someone starting out in their legal career?
You need to persevere, stay passionate and focused.  A legal career is challenging and demanding, it requires a lot of dedication, long hours and resilience. Find an area of law that interests you and specialise as soon as you can.  Always say yes to every opportunity that is presented to you.  Remember that the law is continually developing, and so should you, always be open to new areas and diversify. 

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