During a short hearing at Birmingham Crown the other day I got a glimpse at what’s right around the corner for our courts.
A defendant appearing for breaching a suspended sentence order had no barrister and told the judge: “They’re too expensive.”
Self-employed and earning a maximum of £300 a week, he said he had been quoted £480 for a lawyer to attend and make representations for what would be a 30 minute appearance.
He was told matter-of-factly by the judge: “You’re here for breach of a suspended sentence, the starting point is you go down for this. You need a lawyer as much as anyone who comes before this court.”
For those unaware, solicitors across the country, as of July 1, have ceased accepting new work under the Legal Aid scheme after a further 8.75% cut to fees imposed by the Ministry of Justice kicked in last week.
I don’t know about the Legal Aid situation of suspended sentence man – who was given a two week stay to raise the cash for a lawyer. What I do know is such scenes are set to become more common. The difference will be that two weeks, two years or two decades won’t be enough for many defendants to fund a legal defence.
For a better analysis of the situation, how we ended up where we are and what the future holds, check out the excellent blog over at Jack Of Kent that provides better insight than I could of the picture overall.
The MoJ insist it’s business as usual in the court system which, even if true (and I doubt it is), that won’t remain the case.
As more and more defendants, facing the most serious charges, find themselves without a lawyer, the system could grind to a halt.
The alternative is to proceed with defendants representing themselves. This is like telling someone who can’t afford a dentist to fill their own tooth, can’t afford a doctor? Do your own heart bypass.
Expecting someone without qualification to argue against a serious charge, with complicated legal issues and procedures, makes a mockery of the Rule of Law, something Justice Secretary (and Lord Chancellor) Michael Gove has a constitutional duty to uphold.
Part of the problem is public image. Legal Aid just isn’t very sexy. Most people never need it so see the cost as throwing money down the drain on criminals.
The problem is that ignores the notion of innocent until proven guilty. It’s also short sighted of people to think they’ll never need a lawyer.
If you happen to hit someone in your car and kill them you could easily be staring down the barrel of a death by dangerous or careless driving charge. If that happens and you have no cash for a qualified lawyer, you’ll have to navigate the process alone and with little advice.
Justice comes at a cost. It’s a cost we all pay so that we all have access to an essential service if and when we need it, much like national insurance covers us should the worst happen.
At no time should a defendant, facing charges against the might of the state, find themselves in a situation where, fighting for justice, they have to tell a judge: “It’s too expensive”.