22 January 2015
The number of criminal defendants forced to represent themselves has increased, showing the cuts to legal aid are proving a major barrier to justice.
A survey of justices across England and Wales, conducted by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) and the Magistrates’ Association, shows that one in five criminal defendants who appears before them does not have a lawyer.
Seven out of ten magistrates who had witnessed self-representation in criminal courts believed it was a serious problem, and a threat to the justice system. The probably cause of the rise in self-representation is the cuts to legal aid, particularly the 8.75 per cent cut in fees paid to lawyers, which has reduced the number of solicitors willing to work on criminal cases.
Ministry of Justice figures show that the number of criminal trials at magistrates courts funded by legal aid fell by 18,228 cases (6 per cent), between the first three quarters of 2013 and the first three quarters of 2014.
Magistrates and solicitors are voicing concerns about self-representing defendants making ill-informed decisions.
Richard Monkhouse, Chairman of the Magistrates’ Association, said; “The MA is concerned that the proportion of members expressing concern about unrepresented defendants in criminal proceedings increased over the six months between surveys and the impact this may be having on the delivery of criminal justice in the magistrates’ courts.
“The MA also noted the rise in concerns about unrepresented defendants appearing before the magistrates’ courts during remand and bail hearings. The MA believes when a defendants liberty is subject to challenge by the CPS, defendants should have a right to legal representation.
“The MA is particularly concerned that it is the most vulnerable families who appear before the Family Court, and who frequently, appear, to do so without the necessary legal advice and support. The MA, noted the additional burden this was putting on Legal Advisors and questioned whether current working models would need to be reviewed to account for the increase in LiPs in family court.”
Bill Waddington, chairman of the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association, stated in a letter to the Independent; “The Lord Chancellor has been warned time and again that his cuts to legal aid would result in a surge of self-representation among defendants. Today’s research is a classic case of a self-fulfilled prophecy, highlighting that Chris Grayling’s wrong-headed reforms are pushing the justice system to its limits.
“Treasured principles, including access to justice and equality before the law, will be further undermined if his plans for crude and forced consolidation reducing the number of providers by two-thirds goes through.”
The Magistrates Association is calling on the government to review the situation.
Cuts in funding to legal aid are part of the Conservatives’ wider attempt to ensure justice is only accessible to the rich. Justice Deferred, a critical guide to the Coalitions employment tribunal reforms, documents the extent to which extent to which access to justice in employment disputes is being systematically shut down by the Coalition government.