Legal aid in crisis

Why Britain’s Criminal Justice System is on the brink of collapse
By Rachael Funnell

As the future of the Criminal Justice System hangs by a horsehair, a country ignores the collective voice of those entrusted with finding the truth.

In April of this year, following cuts to the public sector which saw Advocates earning below minimum wage, tensions within the Criminal Justice System reached a boiling point, resulting in a month-long strike affecting court cases across the country. Defendants were left to represent themselves, with one judge being forced to single-handedly cross examine the defence and prosecution after a husband and wife were both unable to source legal aid.

Further strike action was threatened but after a proposed injection of £15 million to subsidise the 2017 recommendations for legal aid remuneration, service returned as normal. Unfortunately, promises made to the Criminal Bar Association, who represent criminal barristers across England and Wales, were not upheld, with only £8 million returning to the available funding.

In light of worsening conditions, leading members of the Queen’s Counsel are speaking out to declare that under the new system, which gives inadequate compensation for legal aid based on the nature of a case, they would no longer recommend a career in criminal representation.

John Scott QC told The Times: “There is no area of law more important than criminal law. However, I regret the fact that I am at a stage now where I would probably say to young people ‘look, it’s hugely important and we need the best people doing it, but you would be able to support yourself and your family much better, much more easily, if you did something else’.

A drop off in the number of trainee advocates has long been a concern within criminal law, with the demographic of legal aid workers consisting of 60% of over 50 year olds across much of the country. An aging cohort puts the entire Criminal Justice System at risk, with the prospect of an already struggling workforce being reduced to an underpaid and unrepresentative community of lawyers. A reduction in legal aid remuneration also means that only those able to support themselves financially can undertake such work, thwarting decades of efforts to increase diversity within the profession.

In a situation which, in many ways, mirrors the conditions of the 2015 dispute over changes to the Junior Doctors’ contract, the crisis of the Criminal Justice System has seen comparatively little public support or debate. While the plight of the unrepresented “criminal” might not make as heart-wrenching a campaign as that of the patient left without treatment, it’s one that concerns both guilty and innocent alike. Reduced investment resulting in poorly investigated cases causes delay and unnecessary distress for witnesses and victims, as well as the defendant. Disclosure crises have historically caused the collapse of multiple rape trials, proving it’s not only the accused who suffer when inadequate investigations are undertaken.

On a socioeconomic level, defendants who are unable to afford private legal counsel would be the worst affected by a collapse in the quality and availability of legal aid, meaning presumed innocence and a fair trial would become rights confined to the upper classes.

With prosecutions falling to just 9% in the past five years, half their previous value, the fate of the Criminal Justice System appears less favourable than that of the law-breaking community it  exists to prosecute. Afterall, at least crime pays.

Shortlisted for The Economist Britain writer in 2017