Why you need Legal Aid

You might think that legal aid is a wasteful expense, used to prevent those who should rightfully be convicted and sent to prison from getting their just deserts. It’s just to benefit the criminals and their fat cat lawyers, right?

Well, quite possibly you won’t ever need legal aid or criminal defence. Hopefully not. But can you say for sure that you won’t ever need it, and neither will anyone you know or care about? Will your children or grandchildren ever need it?

Strangely, at the same time as holding the above or similar beliefs, millions of people were hooked in and transfixed by the recent storyline in Coronation Street, with the totally innocent Tyrone Dobbs being unfairly accused of domestic violence assaults by his dishonest and manipulative ex-fiancee, Kirsty Soames. Obviously that’s a fantasy (and lawyers watching TV often find themselves shouting corrections at the box, but that’s for another day) however it had enough credibility to it that people could believe in it. “Hell hath no fury…” perhaps. You can imagine such a thing happening, can’t you?

If you need proof that they do, how about a story from today’s papers: here’s one from this morning reporting that a woman made up a false allegation of rape because she was fascinated with fiction novels featuring violent rapes. You’d want to be defended if you were in that situation wouldn’t you? How about if it happened to your son?

It’s fair to say that such cases are rare, but false or exaggerated allegations which defendants need defending from are to be found in all courts, every day of the week. Most of them don’t get reported in the media. The papers tend only to report convictions. There is not such a good story in “Jury finds that defendant didn’t do what the witnesses said he did.”

The Prosecutor’s opening speech gets the front page, the Complainant’s evidence page 2, the acquittal is usually one paragraph on page 17!

The thing is that if you’re unlucky, if you cross the wrong people, you could find yourself on the receiving end.

And at that point every one of you would be saying that you want the best solicitor and the best barrister to deal with your case. Your life is on the line. You know you didn’t do it. You want to be defended. You don’t want to be told that the only representation you can have is a budget service from a lawyer you have foisted on you, who has no regard for quality.

You might feel the same if you end up in court inadvertently. Maybe you make a mistake while driving, or maybe you’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe someone you care about, perhaps a teenage child, goes off the rails for a time and breaks the law. Obviously their behaviour should be punished, but you see the other side of them and care about them. As a parent you want them to be defended, don’t you?

I can give some examples of people who I have directly dealt with in the criminal system, and who required legal advice and representation. Some of them did not receive legal aid because they were not financially eligible, but that’s not the point. Most did, and there is an injustice for those who didn’t get help where they were in that posiion through no fault of their own.

Not all defendants are guilty, and everyone is entitled to a fair trial and a proper defence. That a defendant is innocent until the allegation is proven, on the evidence, such that the jury are sure that they are guilty is an essential protection of our liberties. And it’s an old idea, not some new European idea – a case as long ago as 1935 held that the requirement for the prosecution to prove its case was a “golden thread” running through the history of English law.

Legal aid is an essential part of preserving the right to a fair trial. It ensures that the vulnerable and those who can’t afford to pay for representation get the same standard of representation as those who are more wealthy.

Justice should be impartial, blind some say. She should not have one eye craftily open gazing on the net worth of the defendant. If Lady Justice has one hand on her Sword of Reason and Justice, and the other on the Balance Scales, she doesn’t have a spare hand to clutch the purse strings too.

So here are some examples from my own career. The details are vague enough that my clients will not be recognised. I will not enter into discussion about who they were, but they were all real people. All criminal lawyers will have their own tales. If they want to add them, suitably anonymised, to the comments, I’m sure we’d all be interested.

Can you say, for sure, that no-one you know or care about will ever be in the same or a similar situation?

Case 1

Businessman dismissed an employee. Ex-employee went to the police and alleged an assault. It turned out this was not the first time the employee had made false allegations. Trial heard and jury returned Not Guilty verdict. A guilty verdict would have led to a prison sentence and the loss of the business. Entitled to be defended?

Case 2

Car driver misjudged a turning and failed to see approaching motorbike. It was a relatively small error of momentary carelessness, something probably all of us have done without any ill effects at least once, but the motorbike collided with the car and, tragically, the rider was killed instantly. The driver was prosecuted for careless driving. There would be a risk of prison for this tragic but unintended accident.  Entitled to have the mitigation fairly put before the court?

Case 3

Client got into a dispute with their private landlord. Issues over repairs not being carried out. Client moved out. The landlord did not return the deposit so client took some property from the house to the value of the deposit, thinking this was allowed.  Landlord made allegation of theft. Lacking dishonesty, so entitled to a trial? This case can apply to many other scenarios in which one party honestly believes they are owed something by someone else, or there is a difference of opinion about ownership. Such allegations are easily made in acrimonious divorces or separations.

Case 4

A student, away from home for first time, was a regular in the student nightclubs. Stupidly bought a number of Ecstasy tablets for self and friends.  Searched, arrested, charged and taken to court for possession of a class A drug with intent to supply. Faced a lengthy custodial sentence. Do you think their parents wanted them to be properly represented, or did they just say they were a criminal and shouldn’t be helped?

Case 5

Taxi driver. Picked up lone female late at night. She didn’t have the money to pay her fare. She made a false allegation of indecent assault to cover this. Later transpired she had a history of making similar, even identical, false allegations. Anyone who works alone with the public is at risk of such a problem (and this is not the only taxi driver false allegation case I’ve dealt with).

Case 6

Man bought an expensive landrover from an advert in a well-known auto sales magazine. Paid many thousands of pounds. Pulled over by police and arrested when it transpires said landrover had been stolen. Ultimately released without charge, but needed advice in police station first.

This is just a small sample of cases which I particularly remember from my own career. I could cite others, and there will be some I’ve forgotten about. If you take 6,000 other criminal lawyers, there must be thousands more tales.

Teachers facing false allegations from errant pupils. Foster carers dealing with vulnerable children who face falsities because they try to impose discipline for the first time. Office workers who find themselves in the frame because a colleague had their hand in the till. Separating couples who make allegations of theft or assault. Separated couples who make similar allegations in support of child contact proceedings in the civil courts. Then what about the respectable people who suffer a nervous breakdown and end up offending? The cancer-suffering pensioners who use cannabis to ease their pain? Even perhaps the otherwise respectable people who after a particularly heavy night, a birthday perhaps, end up in a drunken brawl; disgraceful certainly, but maybe a one-off aberration which can be mitigated?

All lives potentially turned upside down or ruined by their dealings with the criminal justice system. Sometimes blameworthy, sometimes not. But all entitled to a fair and equal hearing. You would expect it for yourself or your children.

Legal aid and the criminal justice system are here for all of us. For defendants, both innocent and guilty. For witnesses, who would rather be cross-examined by a competent lawyer than by the defendant themselves. For victims, who want cases dealt with properly and with the minimum of stress and inconvenience. For society, in preserving the rule of law and our hard-won freedoms.

You don’t know whether you might need legal aid sometime. You don’t know whether your family or friends might need it eventually.

Protect it before it is gone forever.

Sign the petition.

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18 comments

  1. John Gowers

    For the average member of the public this situation is quite complex. I am such a member. I have read all that I can find on this subject and am incensed at the damage our politicians are about to do. However, for me to spread the facts coherently so that they will be absorbed by others I need all the salient points listed succinctly so that they will be passed on in turn and hopefully spread on their own.
    Articles like this and that by Will Nelson are excellent but are too long to go viral. They will make good justification reading after the message has got across.

    Please put the message in short sharp bullet points in as startling manner as possible so that they may be transported easily around the web.

    • cjeyes2012

      That’s a very fair point and we’re working on it. Unfortunately we have some catching up to do after having our characters and careers consistently attacked by governments of all shades for many years.
      If we do produce such documentation I’ll be sure to put it up here.
      Please do what you can to spread the message in the meantime.

      • Jane Waugh

        I am glad that a non lawyer such as John has responded to the legal aid blog. Ordinary members of the public will be concerned when they know the full picture. I know the CBA in particular are working hard to ensure they find out soon. In the meantime thanks to John for posting and letting us see that the public care.

    • Christopher Amis

      Legal aid is indeed for all of us. Who, when the independent criminal Bar is gone, will ensure that the violent stranger rapist who drags your 15 year old daughter to the ground as she walks home from the train station after a night out is convicted?
      Who, having inherited the brief for the first time on the Friday night before trial Monday, will work most of the weekend getting the case up to trial readiness for Monday, instead of playing with his children in the garden, so as to ensure that the victim who has been set upon in a pub fight and gratuitously beaten black and blue sees justice prevail?
      Where will the elite team of prosecutors at the Old Bailey -Treasury Counsel- come from? Who will ensure that those responsible for outrages like 7.7 bombings are put away?
      The independent Bar, every day of the week, in courts up and down the land, year in year out, helps to ensure that the public can walk the streets safely because we are the ones who prosecute the most serious offenders. We are the ones who are, when the court day finishes at 4.30pm, up working until 1am, preparing for court the next day. Do the public imagine a Tesco lawyer is going to work after his contractual hours end every day at 5pm? I think not.
      The independent Bar provides the public with fantastic value. It’s high time it was recognised.
      Christopher Amis
      Barrister at 23,Essex St Chambers

      • cjeyes2012

        I can’t add much to that. Totally agree. All I would say is that some in-housers do have the Bar ethos (as those who have received emails from myself at 3am would testify). However, it is unlikely in the extreme that a low-paid Tesco Value lawyer (…other supermarkets are available) would ever work in this way.

        Indeed, looking to the future, why would anyone even bother to train for the Bar, with all the uncertainty apart from the certainty of £40,000 debt, if the only option at the end was low pay and no status as a corporate automaton.

        The plans are hopeless and will be the death of justice. We must show what we stand for.

  2. Charles evans

    The name Sally Clark ought to stir sufficient memories for people to question how on earth innocent people facing the weight of the state are going to manage if deprived of the means of defence or even inquiry. Remember that legal aid extends to obtaining scientific assistance.

  3. Jane Wood

    And Sally Clark was, of course, a practising solicitor married to a practising solicitor and daughter of a senior police officer.

  4. Paul Cross

    To Sally Clark you can add the name of Colin Stagg who the police tried to entrap for the murder of Rachael Nickell, a crime committed for sure, as we now know, by someone else.

  5. Anthea Bailey

    The case I wanted to mention goes as follows. A parent burst into my office at 7.30 one morning and asked why we had done nothing about his daughter being sexually assaulted at school. I said we had not been made aware of any happening hence nothing done. His daughter didn’t speak. He then stormed out. I spent most of the day investigating the allegation that this boy had put his hand down the girls trousers. The boy was a fairly low ability 13 year old well known to me to be totally honest, often owning up to things I knew nothing about. I asked him if anything had happened with the girl. He said did I mean when he gave her a kiss outside a classroom but she had asked him to. When I finally explained the event he totally denied it. I spoke to many of his and her friends that day and they said she was putting the story around to cover the fact that she had been out with another boy while her boyfriend was on holiday. The girl was known as an excellent actress and drama queen. I put this all in writing to the head as I was sure we had not heard the last of the father, a real bully. Next morning at 10 the police arrived at the school and asked to see the boy. The Father had been to the police the night before and they had videoed the girls statement. I took the police to the head and then collected the boy. We then made a big mistake. The police said they were going to take him home and interview him with his mother present. Mother was an even lower ability than the boy, no father at home. We should have kept him at school and them collect the mother. It turned out Mother was not at home and wasn’t located until afternoon when someone from social services contacted her. The boy meanwhile had been taken to a police station 15 miles away and held in a cell. When mother finally got there, early evening, no car and no home phone, a duty solicitor was called. He was shown the video then spoke with the boy and told him that if he said he had done it he would be allowed to go home with his mother if not he would spend the night in the cell. Accordingly he pleaded guilty.
    I discovered the following morning that he had pleaded guilty and after discussion with the head was told he would have to be expelled as we could not have the two in the same school. I phoned his grandparents to tell them. They told me he swore he didn’t do it but the solicitor told him to plead guilty as above. They did not tell him it would put him on the sex offenders register. I contacted social services who were equally appalled. All I was able to do was get him moved to another school without expelling him. They never had a moments trouble with him. Obviously there are other bits to this but that is the main outline and why I was so disgusted.

    • cjeyes2012

      Anthea, thanks for your comment. It is one of those cases which illustrates very well the problems we face. The fact that allegations are not necessarily well-founded, and that the vulnerable if under pressure can sometimes end up admitting things they have not necessarily done.
      I cannot speak for the solicitor concerned and neither of us know the full story, but sexual allegations involving children, especially child against child, are very difficult and require careful handling. To many in society the fact of an allegation is seen as enough – no smoke without fire – but to those dealing with these cases it is clear that life is not that simple.
      The present system does not work perfectly. Like anything else there are some providers who are better than others. In this case one presumes that the advice was that if this relatively minor offence was admitted, a youth reprimand would be administered and court proceedings avoided. That places huge pressure on a vulnerable child who was no doubt frightened and in unfamiliar and bewildering circumstances.
      I’m afraid that if the proposed changes come into effect there will be far more of this, at all levels. The financial incentive to the low-cost providers is such that a plea is the only cost-effective result, and the many high-quality lawyers currently working in the system will either have departed for other areas of practice, been made redundant, or been re-employed on such dismal terms that they no longer care.
      If you don’t want to see more of this stuff then please support the campaign.

  6. Tim J

    I completely agree with the article and I think the government’s attack on justice is shocking.
    On a totally different tack: I hope you won’t mind me pointing out that the things someone justly deserves are known as just deserts (not desserts). At present your first sentence suggests people think Legal Aid prevents criminals from getting their pudding . . .

  7. SussexBarrister

    I’ve just spent two weeks representing a young father accused of assaulting his infant son; a charge bought against him almost entirely on the evidence of a consultant paediatrician from a well know Children’s hospital. My instructing solicitor and I were convinced from our earliest dealings that he was innocent of ANY wrongdoing at all, and that the Prosecution expert had made numerous mistakes. After a year without being able to see his two children, a huge amount of work by the defence solicitors, the instruction of an independent expert from Wales and many late evenings of work by myself, our client was acquitted within an hour by the jury. I’m still convinced he had done absolutely nothing wrong, as are my solicitors. Under the governments new proposals there simply wouldn’t have been the time or finance to adequately defend him. Full stop. For a start there almost certainly wouldn’t have been a defence paediatrician. Cut price, bargain basement representation would almost certainly have left my client convicted, in prison and without any hope of ever seeing his children again. Anyone who thinks that “the innocent have nothing to fear” is sadly misinformed. If these reforms come in, be afraid, be very afraid.

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  9. Frank

    Although I studied law at bachelor and masters level, and at one stage had every intention of becoming a criminal solicitor, I am delighted to say that I pursued a completely different career. And my interest in law has dropped so much so that I have no idea what the proposed changes will bring. I’m aware of the changes over the last decade to legal aid, but are the proposed reforms the greatest attack yet? What are they? The article seems to be written for people with no experience or real knowledge of the CJS, so it should really explain what will actually be occurring, as well as when it will occur.

    (I also prefer ‘just desserts’, but am grateful of the correction)

    • cjeyes2012

      Thanks for the comment Frank.

      Perhaps I need to look at my theme to make sure that other articles are highlighted.

      My summary of the proposed changes and their impact is here https://barrister999.wordpress.com/2013/04/16/legal-aid-some-thoughts/

      The proposals are in my view by far the greatest attack yet. If implemented they will destroy the system we have, and ultimately lead to its replacement with a public defender service as seen in the US.

      You probably had a lucky escape by doing something other than law!

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