Like Premiership footballers, or Formula One racing drivers, successful solicitors and barristers aren’t enamoured with the idea of working for minimum wages. The best charge more.
As a society, we ensured that the poorest and most vulnerable had access to the best legal advice and support when the State threatened criminal sanction by subsidising that advice through the legal aid fund.
The list of ‘household name’ top level barristers available to you through the legal aid system has shrunk since Chris Grayling took a scythe to the legal aid rates. Would you expect Wayne Rooney to continue to score goals for £200 a week, just because you are a Manchester United fan – or to walk off into the sunset where his superior skills are valued in a suitably superior manner?
The consequences of this are obvious – even if you are entitled to legal aid, and only a very narrow band of the most vulnerable are, you won’t be accessing the finest legal brains unless you happen to chance upon a particularly philanthropic senior member of the legal profession.
The alternative is to mortgage your home and soul, and pay for legal representation yourself – it can be incredibly expensive. Michael Le Vell is reputed to have paid £250,000 to prove that he was the victim of a false allegation. There is no redress from the State. No apology.
Today, April 13th 2015, Chris Grayling has surreptitiously added a new layer of expense. Sneaked in at the end of last month, under cover of election fever, he has used his devolved powers to decree that not only must you pay to be represented against the might of the State, but if convicted you must pay to ‘use’ (sic) the facilities of the State such as the judicial system.
We abandoned capital punishment because we recognised that people could not only be falsely accused, but falsely prosecuted and falsely convicted. Being reburied in St Patrick’s Cemetery in Leytonstone and granted a posthumous pardon would have been of scant consolation to Timothy Evans.
Today, he would have had the indignity of paying £1,200 for having the nerve to plead ‘not guilty’ in a Crown Court to add to his woes. He could have pleaded guilty in a magistrates court for a mere £150…
The majority of cases in our criminal courts are not those against the wealthy and celebrated – despite the media attention that is given to these cases. The majority of cases are against the poorest and most vulnerable, many are ill-educated and close to unemployable. A high proportion are in receipt of benefits. Offences like dropping litter or drinking alcohol in a protected zone will immediately receive an additional £150 court fee. These charges will not be means tested, and if unpaid will result in – guess what? – imprisonment. They will apply after the current ‘victim surcharge’, prosecution costs and fines.
They will deter individuals from pleading ‘not guilty’ and demanding ‘judgement by their peers’ in the Crown court. There is no discretion for the court to reduce or remit the fee if a defendant finds himself in court for the first time, or merely prosecuted on a technicality.
We have permitted a perverse system of justice where the rights enshrined in the Magna Carta aren’t absolute but are enjoyed on a sliding scale according to your means.
If the position is that those convicted of offences should pay towards the costs involved in bringing them to justice, then justice and fairness would suggest that those wrongly prosecuted should be entitled to recover their costs in defending themselves following an acquittal, a right lost by the vast majority of defendants in 2012.
Where was it said ‘To none shall we sell justice’? Oh yes, Magna Carta.
In the year of the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, we have, through this, forfeited our right to criticise other countries and their justice systems, ours is now based on justice for the highest bidder.