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?
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?
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?
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.
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?
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).
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.