Think this could only happen in an oppressive foreign regime? Sounds a bit Orwellian? Well, this is a scene that is occurring with alarming regularity in the Magistrates court of Reading, right now.
On October 2nd 2006, the Criminal Defence Service Act came into force. This piece of legislation was designed to reduce the amount of people who were able to claim legal aid by introducing means testing and an “interests of justice” section. People who earn over a certain amount of money and those that can’t “justify” requiring a lawyer must go before a magistrates court unrepresented, or shell out the exorbitant fees that UK criminal lawyers command (around £150-£200 an hour).
The means testing idea must have looked good on paper: Those who earn over a certain amount must now pay for their own defence. Fine, when applied to premiership footballers claiming legal aid. However, the bar to receiving legal aid has been placed at a ludicrously low level. Those earning less than £11,590 will automatically qualify. Those earning above £20,740 will automatically be disqualified. Those earning in between must have less than £3,156 annual disposable income in order to qualify. These are not high sums, but ones that would disqualify low-medium income people from being entitled to a free defence. The price of a “not guilty” plea and subsequent trial, may cost upwards of £3000, a price that many solicitors themselves would struggle to pay.
The other way people are being disqualified is in “the interests of justice”. What this involves is asking the defendant why he feels that he deserves legal representation. Suitable grounds include the likelihood of going to prison, complexity of any legal issues in the case or possibility of loss of earnings/reputation. Many people are having their applications for legal aid turned down on this part of the test, not because they are not eligible, but because they are filling the form out incorrectly. Solicitors in Reading, as a form of industrial action, are refusing to help their potential clients fill out the form. Many illiterate people are therefore unable to apply for legal aid. Does this sound like it’s in the “interests of justice” to anyone else?
Mary Keniger, Vice President of the Oxford University Amnesty International Group, stated “Ability to pay a solicitor should not be used as a basis of discrimination and I find it shocking that such vulnerable members of our society should be forced to face such difficult legal proceeding without professional advice. Article 7 of the Universal Declaration for Human rights states, ‘All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this’"
Legal Aid and representation is a right, not a privilege. Whenever a person goes before a court in England on criminal charges, they face the possibility of prison. They face a well oiled system, designed to make criminal convictions and sanctions stick. Denying any such person legal aid is not in the interests of justice, it is a travesty of justice.
Update: On December 4th and 5th, Solicitors in Reading are currently planning a two day strike. No one will be represented in the magistrates court on these days. Similar actions are planned in other parts of the country. Try not to get arrested on those days.