10:53, November 24 269 0 theguardian.com

2019-11-24 10:53:05
Legal aid cuts prompt rise in unrepresented defendants

The number of unrepresented defendants in crown courts is rising sharply, the head of the Criminal Bar Association has warned, as cuts to legal aid increasingly impact the criminal justice system.

Addressing the annual Bar Council conference in London at the weekend, Caroline Goodwin QC said figures show that as many as 7.7% of those appearing at a first hearing last year had not been represented by a lawyer. In 2010 the percentage was 4.9%.

In terms of defendants being unrepresented at any stage of their trial, the proportion has risen from 0.6% to 1% over the same period. The figures, highlighted by the Institute for Government thinktank, are based on Ministry of Justice research. Campaigners have said that without representation there is a greater risk of miscarriage of justice.

Legal aid is available to defendants in criminal cases but is based on a means test for which the financial eligibility thresholds have not been upgraded for years. Many defendants are required to make financial contributions, which are sometimes almost as costly as paying privately for a solicitor or barrister.

The growth in unrepresented defendants is causing problems for crown court trials, Goodwin told the conference: “7.7% of people in the court [at first appearance] are litigants in person. That builds in a time delay because their cases take longer.”

Other financial economies, particularly HM Courts and Tribunals’ cost-saving allocation of the number of sitting days for courts and the dilapidation of court buildings, are also creating difficulties, according to Goodwin.

She said: “At the moment, 40% of criminal courts are sitting empty. You can’t get access to court. How is that access to justice? Unless there’s investment [the criminal justice system is] going to fail and falter.”

The courts need extra funds to pay for more recorders and part-time judges so that they can have more sitting days, she told the conference. “If the courts are not sitting then justice can’t be done. More sitting days. [We need to] reduce the backlog that is bound to increase.

“Give us buildings that work and, above all, invest in our criminal justice system. Our buildings are falling apart.” Better pay is also needed for junior barristers so that their fees at least cover their train fares, she added.

Earlier in the conference, Lady Justice Thirlwall, the deputy presiding judge for England and Wales, acknowledged that the backlog in cases waiting to be heard “is going up in a number of courts … as cases are becoming more complicated”.

She also complained about the physical state of court buildings. “It’s surprising that a country that prides itself on respect for the rule of law,” she said, “[has courthouses where] the loos don’t work, roofs leak and the backlog of repairs is huge.”