A report in The Times has highlighted that the UK’s legal aid budget has shrunk by 36% since 2010, falling from £2.6 billion to just £1.6 billion last year.
This has meant that many individuals are having to self fund their legal expenses, which has led to some people appearing in court without a lawyer. People representing themselves in court has slowed down the legal process as novices try to get to grips with the intricacies of the law. And a recent report suggested they could be more likely to be found guilty.
A large chunk of people, who would have previously had their criminal defence paid for, are now shut out of legal aid thanks to the introduction of a means test in 2014. And since then there have been more than 67,000 Crown Court defendants with no legal representation at their first hearing.
Even if people can get their hands on a lawyer, many are having to pay privately which can leave them in financial ruin. This is because even if defendants are found to be innocent, they aren’t able to claim back any expenses they’ve used.
Another development in the Crown Court is the rise of people paying for private lawyers, often at great expense. Even if these defendants turn out to be innocent, they cannot claim back the money they spent defending themselves. Campaigners are now referring to this as the “innocence tax.”
Legal aid not only funds lawyers, but other aspects of trials such as expert witnesses. Those with no funds to finance their own trial can be left without crucial witnesses that may be able to help them have a fair trial.
Louise Straw, a lawyer at Burton Copeland LLP, told The Times that cuts to legal aid have hindered her ability to find the witnesses she needs. She said the Legal Aid Agency, which approves payments, sometimes challenges her requests. The experts themselves are put off because the fees are low. She said: “I went through so many experts, most of them didn’t reply to me because you have to start the email saying it’s a legally-aided case, so they just ignore you.”
The number of offices providing criminal legal aid has declined by 17% since 2011-12 with some criminal legal aid lawyers giving up due to the profession not being financially viable. It’s a worry as this could potentially lead to a rise in miscarriages of justice.