Wednesday, 16 July 2014

English Justice... the Best Money Can Buy

One thing that all convicted prisoners in the UK have in common is that they've been through the court system. Given that the last Labour government created an estimated 3,600 new criminal offences, almost anyone can get caught up in the criminal 'justice' system, in many cases inadvertently. It’s also an astonishing fact that by the age of 50 an estimated third of all males in the UK will have some form of criminal record, even if many of these are for relatively minor offences. We're being made into a nation of crims and cons. It's unsurprising that successive governments have tried to crack down on the Legal Aid budget. But who really loses out?

Going down?
An often unnoticed consequence of the ongoing cuts to Legal Aid at the bottom end of the criminal justice market is that many defendants are coming under increasing pressure from their publicly-funded legal representatives to plead guilty even if they are resolutely maintaining their innocence, pretty much regardless of the evidence. This makes for a quick disposal of the case and requires a great deal less preparation ahead of trial. Young, elderly, less articulate or poorly educated defendants, or those suffering from mental health problems, often crumble under this sort of pressure and go guilty. After all, 'your' solicitor and barrister are supposed to be on your side, so their advice must be correct.

A guilty plea keeps costs down at the court end, although not at the subsequent custody phase - should the defendant get a custodial sentence - as this will cost the taxpayer an average per prisoner of around £40,000 per year, not to mention the knock-on consequences if the prisoner has a dependant family. Then there are the longer-term implications of having a criminal record: likely unemployment, problems finding accommodation, sky high insurance and - if the sentence was a custodial one - the risk of recall to prison whilst out on licence.

Winning... even when he's losing?
Of course, if the defendant is paying for his or her defence privately, the converse is likely to be true.  If you are very wealthy, then you can pay for a Rolls-Royce service from a top London firm of solicitors and will stand a fair chance of getting off, even if you are as guilty as sin. A well-funded legal team will have plenty of time to prepare, hold case conferences, locate witnesses, find experts to give scientific evidence and will be well equipped to defend almost any case to the bitter end. It may not always result in an acquittal, but having a top notch defence team means that - like the slogan in the Hunger Games - "the odds will always be in your favour".

However, if you aren't cash-rich and don't qualify for Legal Aid, then prepare to lose everything you (and your family) have ever worked and saved for. If you own your own home, you'll probably be forced to sell it to fund your defence. If you are without assets, bad luck.

Of course, you could opt to face the court on your own and try to fight your way through the archaic jargon and bizarre rules of evidence, not to mention the requirements to serve complex legal paperwork according to inflexible deadlines. And don't expect that hatchet-faced judge on the bench to give you any leeway or assistance. They hate amateurs. Believe me, I've been there.

Gambling with your life
Alternatively, you can always plead guilty to an offence you never committed, get a criminal record and maybe some time in prison where you'll be put to forced labour for £10 a week, yet be all but unemployable on release. Your choice.

So there you have it...  As one lawyer once observed: "English justice: denied to the many, but sold at an unconscionable price to the few".


  1. As one of those blackmailed by a crap defence team into taking a guilty plea at the eleventh hour I thoroughly identify with this post. Solicitors and barristers should be ashamed and appalled by the russian roulette they play with people's lives simply because they can't be bothered to do their job properly and defend the client as they took an oath to do. The British judicial system is corrupt and not fit for purpose in a lot of instances and needs a drastic overhaul. I suppose we should comfort ourselves with the thought that its not nearly as bad as the judicial regimes in a lot of other countries but that is little comfort when you are locked up for a crime you didn't commit. We also need a much more accessible appeals system and sanctions imposed on barristers and solicitors who fail their clients so badly.

    1. Thanks for your comments. Unfortunately, this practice has often been at the root of many miscarriages of justice, especially when the accused is not paying privately for his or her defence. There is an incredible 'inequality of arms' when it comes to criminal justice in England and Wales (I can't comment on Scotland or Northern Ireland). The police and prosecution have staff and experts on call - the defence very often not.

      I have been very lucky with my own legal team, who are all convinced of my total innocence and who volunteered to continue to represent me on a pro bono basis while I was in prison. However, many others are not so lucky and I've met plenty of victims of legal malpractice inside.

      I've read lots of case bundles of other cons and some discrepancies defy belief, like the one where several prosecution eye-witness statements make it clear the perpetrator was a white male while the man convicted and sent down for 20 years is black! Totally shocking.