By Jennifer Hilliard
We all hear the words “Legal Aid” banded about and we hope that we never need to use it, but what do we really know about it and about the proposed changes to it? It was introduced as part of the Legal Advice and Assistance Act 1949 by Attlee’s post-war Labour government. It was a direct result of the recommendations of the Rushcliffe Committee to Parliament. The fundamental principle was that Legal Aid would be available in all courts and in such manner that it would enable persons in need to have access to the professional help they require.
This principle is now under threat by the changes that are proposed to criminal legal aid. Today if you need a lawyer, you can appoint one of your own choosing or have one appointed for you. If these proposals are accepted, you will have a lawyer appointed for you and you will not be able to change that lawyer except under certain rare circumstances. You will not have the option to choose a lawyer that has expertise or experience with your type of case. Instead you will be allocated one on an arbitrary basis that is yet to be determined. You might be forgiven for wondering why this is a problem as you will still get legal representation so let me explain, from my experiences, why this is such a bad move.
I am the mother of two sons who were arrested at the student demonstrations against the rise in tuition fees on 9th December 2010. They were accused of pulling a police officer off his horse and charged with Violent Disorder which carries a maximum prison sentence of 5 years. After two trials and 17 months later both boys were unanimously acquitted in under 2 hours at the end of a two week trial.
The choice of a specialist law firm was crucial to the process of building their defence and to tracking down the evidence needed for the defence case. A total of 11 police officers gave witness statements for the prosecution and because of this we were warned that it would “very difficult case” to win. Not only were the boys lawyers (Bindmans) fantastic and willing to go the extra mile but because they specialise in protest cases we were contacted by support groups through them. One of these groups (Legal Defence and Monitoring Group) helped us appeal for witnesses and uncovered a critical piece of video footage that showed the mounted officer attacking the boys from behind without provocation.
The barristers who represented the boys were selected based on their specialist knowledge and experience in this type of case and great care was taken by Bindmans in selecting them. A choice these changes will take away. The future under the proposals would not have any specialist lawyers or barristers working on legal aid cases because the random allocation of cases would not allow expertise to be developed or specialist experience to be gained.
Another law firm, allocated the case based on costs, may well have advised my sons to plead guilty, because it would be more profitable to them and because of the difficulties of the case. We would never have uncovered the witnesses we found or the video evidence and my sons would have been left with no defence and no option but to plead guilty to an offence they did not commit. The proposed cuts in fees payable to legal representatives will undoubtedly encourage the use of “in house” barristers or of solicitor advocates rather than the specialist barristers who for example had equestrian experience in our case.
The proposed changes to criminal legal aid represent a move towards conveyor belt justice with lawyers being allocated on a cost basis with no choice for the defendant while drastically cutting the fees payable to legal representatives.
Will the proposals save money? On the face of it, almost certainly. However, the bigger question is will they still deliver justice? Undoubtedly the answer is no as we will see the legal profession decimated and defendants poorly represented in all but the easiest cases to defend, resulting in shaky convictions and an increase in appeals.
I believe that if these proposed changes had been in place when my sons were arrested and they had not been able to choose the law firm to represent them they would not only have been convicted of a serious offence but they would now be in prison.
This is not justice.
Jennifer Hilliard is the mother of Christopher and Andrew Hilliard who successfully fought charges of VD relating to the Student protests http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/libertycentral/2012/may/08/policing-dock-anti-fees-protesters-trials