The financial means test for legal aid has forced many defendants into a corner, writes Kerry Hudson, president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association.
Lawyers are not the most cherished jewel in the UK professional crown. Criminal lawyers even less so (Fewer lawyers in court as cuts to legal aid bite, 25 November). It is undoubtedly more compelling to campaign for nurses and doctors tending to the sick, or teachers educating our children. We lawyers are used to having to defend our very existence as a profession and the benefits to all of having a properly funded criminal justice system.
Sadly, the debate has plunged to new depths as “DIY justice” becomes common practice. In crown courts innocent people accused of serious offences carrying lengthy prison sentences are taking the stand alone, without representation from a qualified and experienced lawyer. The financial means test for legal aid, imposed by successive governments, has forced many defendants into a corner. The choice: pay privately without the prospect of recovering those monies if acquitted, spend what little you may have making a hefty contribution to your legal aid bill, or take your chances and fly solo, against a lawyered-up prosecution.
No doctor would turn a patient away from A&E on the basis that the internet can diagnose their symptoms. No teacher would tell a child to educate themselves for exams on the basis that books are available at the library. Fair and equal access to legal representation for those accused of a crime is a low priority for most until they or a loved one experiences the criminal justice system directly. Then the true extent of the broken system and the real potential for a miscarriage of justice becomes real. In this election, the value of fair, equal and properly funded access to legal advice and representation must be recognised, restored and actively promoted before miscarriages of justice cease to be the exception and become the rule.
President, London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association