Iain Smith describes himself as a “turkey voting for Christmas”.

He is a defence solicitor determined to stop his clients reoffending - and he knows it is bad for business.

But after decades of seeing the same faces appear in and out of court, and in and out of jail, he now offers his clients “compassion and patience” and supports them to get the help they need to turn their lives around.

This change in approach - motivated by research linking criminality and traumatic experiences in childhood - is beginning to spread throughout Scotland’s justice system, with police, prosecutors and even the judiciary taking steps to become better informed.

There is also a move towards “smart justice” which looks to solve the problems of crime rather than just punish the criminals.

The Herald: Defence solicitor Iain SmithDefence solicitor Iain Smith

For Mr Smith, who operates in Livingston’s criminal courts, it means he now directs his clients to help and support groups, accompanies them to housing and social work meetings and calls them regularly to see how they are doing.

“The clients I deal with are often the hardest to like but in the greatest need of love,” he said. “Scratch the surface of their lives and you will witness terrible adversity and a tragic backstory.

“Yes they do bad things, but few are thoroughly bad or evil.

“I began to ask why are they behaving this way? And for an awful lot of people it can stem back to the crap hand that they were dealt in childhood.”

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Prominent research shows that stressful events in childhood, known as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), can have lifelong impacts on health and behaviour.

When a person has experienced four or more ACEs before the age of 18, including abuse, neglect or living with a drug addict or alcoholic, they are more likely to commit violence, end up in prison or suffer their own drug and alcohol problems.

They are also more likely to develop a range of health problems later in life, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Experts believe this is due to the impact these traumatic experiences can have on children's developing brains, potentially creating long-lasting impacts on their ability to think and interact with others.

Figures from the Scottish Prison Service show 51 per cent of young people in custody have suffered four or more of these adversities. This compares to an estimate of eight per cent of the general population.

Mr Smith claimed that when he discovered the research, a “lightbulb came on”.

He said: “I suddenly saw the lives of many of my clients, young and old, wounded and broken individuals struggling to cope, unable to self regulate, angry and medicating trauma with drugs and alcohol.

“Despite thinking I tried my best for clients over the past 25 years and now acting for my original clients’ grandchildren, I realised at that point I had not said and done enough.

“It’s crazy to think that the kids who have probably been failed by society quickly turn from being a wee shame to being a wee sh**e when they’re 16 and they’re the ones who end up in the jail. Something is just not right with that.”

The solicitor says that his change in practice has led to a “massive reduction in criminality” for his clients, especially the younger ones.

He now wants to take things further and is calling for other involved in justice, from police officers to judges passing sentence, to become ACE-aware and work towards securing better outcomes for people and reducing offending.

In parts of the justice system this is already underway.

Within Police Scotland, officers in the force’s Ayrshire division have all received ACE awareness training including a film explaining the research and a panel session with people who experienced adversity in childhood.

The force is looking to introduce this training to all of its probationer officers passing through the Scottish Police College in a bid to make them more aware of the problems facing the people they deal with and how those problems can impact on behaviour.

Chief Superintendent Mark Hargreaves, Ayrshire divisional commander, said he hoped the training would help officers to better understand the impact their actions can have in certain situations and also to think more about making appropriate referrals to other services - for example education or social services - if they need to.

He added: “We are an emergency service so by the very nature of our job we will encounter people for a very short period of time. This is really about police officers identifying in that short period of time if there are avenues available to help the people that we encounter.

“There is definitely a growing awareness of ACEs and even speaking to my colleagues throughout the country, they’re all aware of the concept, even if they haven’t been through the training.

“And if this helps us to share information that will support our partners in doing their jobs better, and in doing so help the people we come into contact with, that can only be a positive.”

The Crown Office also now regularly considers ACEs when deciding on the appropriate course of action to take with young offenders.

A recent report by the Inspectorate of Prosecutions on the prosecution of young people recommended that COPFS and Police Scotland work together to ensure that the appropriate information on “any known vulnerabilities or individual and/or family circumstances” is properly reported.

The report also recommended that prosecutors make “maximum use” of diversion when dealing with young people. This means that instead of being prosecuted, they would be referred for support or treatment to deal with the underlying cause of their offending.

A spokesman for the Crown Office said the Lord Advocate has appointed a working group to implement the recommendations.

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Within the judiciary, the Judicial Institute, the body responsible for training Scotland’s judges, sheriffs and justices of the peace, has provided courses for members including information about ACEs.

A spokesman for the Judicial Office for Scotland said: “Examples of such courses are Justice of the Peace conferences, criminal sentencing, family law and vulnerable witnesses. All judges also have access to internal resources focussing on or referring to ACEs.

“ACEs are an aspect of the social context from which many people before the court may come, whether as accused, complainers, witnesses or otherwise. The Judicial Institute is committed to embedding issues of social context throughout its entire curriculum as appropriate.”

The Scottish Prison Service is also in the process of training staff in ACE-awareness so that they can better deal with prisoners, while they also aim to offer support for prisoners, especially young offenders, to address any trauma they may have experienced.

Mr Smith said: "This isn't about being soft on justice, it’s about doing what makes sense. If we make things better for people and stop them offending, then we make things better for everyone.”

However, he added: “Of course the big pinch point for defence solicitors is the way the payment of lawyers is set up. It’s not in my financial interests or in the interest of my colleagues for our clients to stop committing crime.

“That sounds very cynical, I’m a great advocate of what I’m doing and I’m not going to change what I’m doing, but it is bad for business.

“I’m the turkey voting for Christmas, but even defence lawyers were children once and a lot of us have children of our own, and none of us want to continually see childhoods thwarted by parental drug abuse, terrible poverty, bereavement, abuse or mental health difficulties.”

CASE STUDY 'The only justice I knew was being picked up, going to court, getting your sentence and then doing it all again'