If you are unlucky enough to be accused of a crime, you may be one of those affected by the government making it increasingly difficult for people to get legal aid so that they can be defended by trained specialists.
You may question, what does this mean for me? Well, imagine this as a scenario. You are entered into a competition, where there are only two competitors, a Blue Team and a Red Team, but only one of those teams can win.
Why is legal representation so important?
In the blue corner, the team is well equipped. They have had months to prepare, get their “house in order”, work out their strategy and plan how they intend to execute that strategy on the day of the competition. The Blue Team has an almost unlimited budget, and if they need to spend a little more to get the right training and experience of trainers, they can do so. If they need more time before setting the date for the competition, they can pull the strings and postpone when it starts.
In the red corner, there is you – but now pause to consider the following:
- Who is backing you?
- Who is preparing you for the competition?
- Who is talking you through the strategy that you need?
- Who is telling you what the Blue Team will be planning and how they will be looking to play their hand?
- Who is responding to the demands from the Red Team when they are asking for technical information?
- Who is telling you the rules of the competition, what you can say and what you should be doing?
Now, imagine the above scenario is a court case.
The Blue Team has the support of the police, the witness support services, victim support and the Crown Prosecution Service. They are represented by a skilled advocate, trained with many years of experience as to how to conduct a criminal case, who can make you look bad, presenting all their points with great skill and aplomb.
On the Red Team, you might be able to get some of the information that you think you need from Google. It can tell you a great deal, but it can’t be specific to your case and it can’t tell you how to cope with the surprises – and you certainly won’t be using it in court. Plus, it will only tell you what you think you should know, not what you need to know and when you need to know it. There is no substitute for experience.
Hardly seems like a fair competition, does it?
And of course, it’s not – if you are not legally represented you are at a massive disadvantage. You might wonder if you even stand a chance.
Now, if you are lucky enough to get legal aid, hopefully the firm that is representing you has the experience of dealing with your type of case and has a good reputation for defending people.
What happens if I don’t qualify for legal aid?
But what if you don’t qualify for legal aid? Whatever happens, it is clear that it is not wise to be unrepresented. The views of some have been recently well publicised:
“The disquiet amongst the magistracy over Criminal Court charges …is only one of the disturbing threats to the criminal justice system now becoming increasingly apparent… Most worrying for the adversarial system of which we are rightly proud is the significant reduction in legal aid. At the heart of the adversarial system is the concept of ‘equality of arms’, with both sides being equally able to present their case. This has been so seriously undermined by the lack of access to legal aid that it has become a regular and disquieting feature of the magistrates’ court to find defendants attempting to respond to a charge they don’t fully understand, with no experience of the law or of legal procedures, against qualified professionals with all the resources of the CPS behind them…They constitute a real threat to the long tradition of a fair trial for all who appear before us.”
(From letter by Christopher S Morley JP Buckinghamshire Bench in the Magistrate magazine Jan 2016)
A recent report by Transform, “Justice denied? The experience of unrepresented defendants in the criminal courts” speaks volumes and makes interesting reading.
The report makes reference to concerns from prosecutors, magistrates and defence solicitors about the damage that an unrepresented defendant can cause to their own case through a misunderstanding of the law, the procedure and what is expected of them.
What happens if I speak to the Police without legal representation?
It is clear from our experience and that of others, as has been well documented by many commentators, as well as in Transform’s recent report, that many defendants are “forced” or “bullied” to enter a guilty plea to a case where they maintain their innocence, or enter the wrong plea because they are frightened of what is going to happen to them if they don’t behave in a certain way.
We have encountered defendants who have pleaded guilty to an offence that they didn’t understand and only later become aware of the consequences. On occasions, a defendant will rely on what a police officer has told them, believing that the police officer is giving them honest legal advice in their interests; unrepresented defendants coming to court having no idea of the serious nature of the case against them, having been encouraged to admit an offence at the police station on the basis that they will just get a fine and it will “all be okay”. From the aforementioned report, it is clear that we are not alone in our experiences:
“I could count on the fingers of one hand how many have actually understood the charges. I have had one who was facing a GBH s18 charge, believing he was in court for common assault and being shocked when I had to tell him the serious nature of the charge” (prosecutor).
We share the concerns of the author of the report that an unrepresented defendant is ill-equipped and lacks the experience to deal with the cross examination of witnesses; in the Justice Denied report, it was reported by one prosecutor that:
“They don’t make the right points, they don’t ask the right questions. They can actually undermine their own case”
“I have prosecuted trials against unrepresented defendants. It is a complete sham and a pale imitation of justice”
It is clear from all of the evidence, and independent commentators, that an unrepresented defendant is at a disadvantage and may be vulnerable to a miscarriage of justice.
As a specialist criminal defence firm, we would strongly advise anyone in that position to take a moment to reflect on how important the case may be to them and their future – if it matters to you at all, don’t take the risk, take expert legal advice and contact a specialist firm today.