You may have seen, or heard about legal aid cuts, and that criminal defence lawyers aren’t happy. You may have read that legal aid expenditure is unnecessary, and fully support any proposals to change the system, and to impose cuts. After all, it’s not as if it’ll ever affect you.
Imagine the scene; you’re in a crowd of football fans, heading to the game. These aren’t people you know, it’s just the sheer volume of fans on their way to the stadium. Someone, somewhere, says something. You carry on. You look around, and see a few angry people. You have no idea what is going on, and continue. However, you are suddenly grabbed by the shoulder. You have been identified as the person who shouted by the police constable who has you in his grasp. You protest your innocence, clearly this is mistaken identity, but you are now being accused of being aggressive, and are arrested under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986.
You are taken to the station, where you ask to speak to the duty adviser. You wait for hours, before a legal adviser comes to speak with you. You have been given no choice as to who this person will be. You protest your innocence to the rep, pointing out that the constable must have mistaken you for the real perpetrator.
Unbeknown to you, your rep is under pressure to keep costs low. S/he is telling you to plead guilty now, as it will lessen any punishment.
But the area is covered by CCTV, you tell them. Your rep tells you that obtaining the evidence will take time, and even then, it is likely not to be of use, and that if you were to take the matter to trial, you are more likely to be convicted, and receive a heavier punishment.
The reality is, your rep’s firm has bid the lowest price to secure a legal aid contract. Taking your matter further will cost more, and it’s not in their interest to take it to a trial. The fact that if the CCTV footage was to lead to any charges being dropped, is irrelevant. This firm is now having to keep to targets, or it will lose the contract in the next round.
So your rep will overplay the cold, harsh reality of being found guilty, as opposed to accepting responsibility, and your punishment.
On their advice, you don’t contest the matter in interview. You are given a caution, but you now have a criminal record, which could have a negative impact on some careers.
Hopefully not yours.
One of the most important rights we have in the UK, and certainly in England and Wales, is that to a fair trial. This involves a number of factors; being able to choose your lawyer, the availability of free, independent advice, and a lawyer prepared to fight your case, no matter how ridiculous it looks. However, if Chris Grayling’s proposals were to take effect, these principles will be lost, unless you are one of the few who can afford to pay for these rights.
Legal aid has already been cut for matters in the civil courts, matters which affect most of us at some point. Unless you are a victim of domestic violence, you will not get legal aid if separating from your partner. If you are suffering at work, don’t even think about trying for a constructive dismissal. Not only will you struggle to find representation, or advice, the fees, should the matter get to a hearing, are £1,200, and there’s no guarantee you will be able to successfully recover those, if you are successful.
Many community law centres have already closed. Those voluntary organisations that are left will have to bear the brunt when it comes to advice. But it’s not certain that they will have the resources, or the expertise, to assist in all cases.
We need to act now, before we end up with a two tier justice system. Then it really will be “one rule for them, and another for the rest of us”. Please, sign the petition, and let this Government know we, the public, want to see fair, and accessible justice for all.