Innocent Until Proven Guilty
Suppose that a thug breaks into your home one night. Your children are asleep and he threatens to slit their throats if you don’t hand over your cash. He lunges at you with a knife on the landing, but you manage to strike him with something heavy. He falls down the stairs, hitting his head so badly that he never regains consciousness and dies a week later. You now face a charge of manslaughter, possibly of murder.
Or suppose that your 20-year-old son drinks too much at a party and ends up in bed with a girl who spent all evening flirting with him. Next morning, when he makes an awkward apology about not wanting to see her again, she squeals rape and your son is arrested.
Suppose that your mother takes the grandchildren out for the evening and is distracted by the noise they’re making in the back of the car. She crashes into and kills a cyclist who isn’t wearing hi-viz gear, and is accused of causing death by dangerous driving.
In any of these scenarios you will, of course, take some comfort from the fact that our justice system will presume that you or your son or mother are innocent until proven guilty. The solicitor who did your conveyancing recommends that you consult a specially trained criminal lawyer. You shop around, still confident that our justice system has deemed everyone, rich or poor, equal before the law since Magna Carta…
… but the first criminal law practice you contact no longer offers legal aid, and you go white at the lips when they tell you their fees. You try another firm and another and another, who all tell you the same story.
‘It’s like this,’ says one solicitor in his 50s. ‘Legal aid rates have been slashed repeatedly, with more cuts due next year – up to 30% for complex cases – which has wiped out our profits. Believe it or not, even defence solicitors have to earn a living, so we can no longer afford to provide legal aid. I’ve already made colleagues redundant. I’d have suggested you try the firm next door, but they’ve gone out of business. But don’t worry, old chap, I could take you on privately. You might have to sell your house to pay my fees and various other expenses, but surely that’s a small price to pay when your liberty’s at stake – though I must warn you that you could still lose your case.’
Don’t laugh. This is the state of the British criminal justice system, once the envy of the world. If you find yourself accused of a crime, rightly or wrongly, you will need to be very rich to afford a good defence lawyer.
The Ministry of Justice has taken a bigger cut than any other government department. As the wife of a criminal defence lawyer made redundant just before Christmas, I am (un)happy to declare an interest here.
‘Good riddance to greedy lawyers paid from the public purse, who keep crooks out of jail and defend foreigners who come here on shop-lifting sprees,’ I can hear many of you say. ‘No smoke without fire; defendants must have done something wrong to be in the dock; our bobbies wouldn’t lie; even if someone has been framed for a crime he didn’t commit, he’s probably guilty of something else we don’t know about; lock ’em up and throw away the key…’
Believe me, my husband has heard it all. All he has to do is go to a party (any party, anywhere) and someone will jab him in the chest with a cheese straw and ask ‘How can you defend the guilty? You mean you lie for a living? And this is what I pay my taxes for?’
Apart from being unbelievably rude, this displays a shocking ignorance of the way the legal system should work in a civilised democracy.
And on the other side of the equation, prosecuting lawyers’ fees have also been decreased and their numbers depleted. Who’s going to send the criminals to jail now and ensure justice is done?
Whatever you think about the legal profession, do spare a thought for the teenage girl murdered by a man who had walked free when his trial collapsed because the prosecuting lawyer wasn’t properly trained. Do think of the young man above – your son, anyone’s son – guilty of nothing more than a one night stand and now languishing in prison as a convicted rapist because he couldn’t afford a decent defence lawyer.
And do check out the value of your house; if you get on the wrong side of someone powerful this year and he makes something up about you, you might need every penny you possess to clear your name.