WHY THE QUALITY OF CRIMINAL LEGAL AID CAN NO LONGER BE TAKEN FOR GRANTED.
Yesterday was the seventieth anniversary of the Legal Aid system.
It should have been an opportunity to celebrate a system which has helped and assisted so many citizens to exercise their rights and to defend their liberty. Instead, I mourn the reduction of this great institution to a dying patient on life support.
The idea behind legal aid is to be applauded. Enabling those, with insufficient resources, to defend their rights in courts and to enable them, in some cases, to defend themselves against the power of the state.This is particularly so in the case of criminal matters. By and large, the vast majority of criminal cases, in this country, are brought by the state , on behalf of the Queen, against an individual. That is why the title of most criminal cases is R v the name of the individual.
R stands for Regina which is the Latin word for Queen.
What this means is that, when a criminal allegation is made, the Police investigate that allegation. This involves taking a statement from the complainant and collecting all other evidence.
It also involves interviewing the alleged suspect or suspects.Suspects can be arrested and can then be held at a Police station for the purpose of interviewing them and/or for the purpose of allowing the Police to collecting evidence without the possibility of interference from the suspect or suspects
Suspects can be held for up to 36 hours subject to a number of reviews, by officers, not involved in the case, along the way.
Beyond that , further extensions have to be sought from a court
Sometimes, an Officer in the case, will arrange for a suspect to voluntarily attend a Police station, in order to be interviewed.
Interviews of suspects, whether arrested, or whether attending as volunteers, are carried out under caution.
What that means is that a warning is given to a suspect, at the start of an interview reminding them that they do not have to answer Police questions , whilst at the same time, explaining that if they do not answer questions during the interview, and then answer them at court, if the matter progresses, then the court may be less willing to believe what the suspect says at court, because they did not give those answers, when interviewed, and this could do damage to their defence.
They are also advised that the recorded interview, or a written version of it, can be used as evidence in proceedings against them.
This interview is probably the most crucial part of any case.
What is said, or is not said, can determine whether or not someone is charged with a criminal offence and, if charged, can set the dye for whether the matter can be defended or whether a guilty plea has to be entered.I have been involved in criminal defence work, since 1994, and , where a suspect is unrepresented at a Police station, there is ample opportunity for officers to use exercise pressure and to use mind games .
Such efforts can be neutralised or reduced if a solicitor is present.
A solicitor can
(I) Question officers to find out ,as much as possible, about the case including why the suspect has been arrested and what evidence there is, or is not, against him or her.
(2) Can take as long as is needed to consult with a client.
(3) Can advise as to the strengths and/or weaknesses of a case
(4) Can discuss options with a client.
(5) Can be present in the taped interview to ensure that the interview is conducted fairly.
(6) Can be present to make bail representations, if required.
Thankfully, where a suspect is going to be interviewed under caution, the law ensures that all suspects are entitled to free, to themselves at least, representation by an on call Duty Solicitor.
However, whereas, in the past, I could vouch for the service, constant fee cuts mean that solicitors are now being paid less than when I started conducting legal aid funded criminal defence work, in 1994.
Whereas, when I started, duty solicitors were paid by the hour, they are now paid a fixed fee , however many times they have to return to a police station.
This gives a perverse incentive to deal with the simplest cases and to deal with more involved cases as quickly as possible.
The poor pay also means that there is a real incentive for firms to send less experienced, and therefore cheaper, representatives , to carry out the work.
I have come to the conclusion that the work cannot be properly conducted at the rates that are being paid.
I therefore, in October of last year, made the decision not to conduct legal aid funded criminal work .
In circumstances where reputation, liberty , job and/or career are at stake, you may feel that privately paying for assured quality representation is a price worth paying.
If privately instructed then
1 I am able to give undivided attention to your case. A duty solicitor sometimes has several matters to deal with in a row.
2 I would be at the Police station for as long as it takes .
3 You would have the guarantee of being represented by a solicitor who has conducted this work for the last 25 years, as opposed to the possibility of being represented by a newly qualified accredited representative.
The matter is , if anything, even worse at the Magistrates Court.
Low fixed fees are still the order of the day and advocates are paid around £50 plus VAT to conduct a hearing in a legal aid funded case.
They may be paid from £80 to £150 to conduct a trial. Once again the incentive is to deal with matters as quickly as possible and for firms to send less experienced staff to court.
Moreover, in many cases, legal aid will not be avaliable because the offence is not serious enough and/ or because someone is earning too much to be granted legal aid.
If this firm attends for you then
I would be there for you alone and would conduct the necessary preparation, take your detailed instructions and deal thoroughly with your court appearance.
In the event of a not guilty trial, I would use my 25 years of experience to take your statement and to prepare your case.
Crown Court fees have also suffered considerable reductions and the same concerns apply.
In the Crown Court, I have Higher rights of audience which means that I am qualified to deal with Crown Court trials but I would decide which cases I could deal with and can instruct Barristers to deal with cases where either I feel they are the best person for a particular case or where you have a preference.
Please note though that if a Barrister is instructed, then their fees are payable as well as those of this firm.
If you are able, then , to be assured of the best representation, and the best outcome, you may feel that it is worth instucting a senior specialist, devoted to your case, rather than relying on luck of the draw.
Sundeep Bhatia is the proprietor of Beaumonde Law Practice and has been conducting criminal defence work since 1994