Changes pose threat to our legal system

FIVE years ago the criminal justice system in Cambridgeshire was one of the worst of England s 42 criminal justice areas, writes IAN MacKELLAR. For the past few years it has been consistently one of the best. That was no accident and there are a number o

FIVE years ago the criminal justice system in Cambridgeshire was one of the worst of England's 42 criminal justice areas, writes IAN MacKELLAR.

For the past few years it has been consistently one of the best.

That was no accident and there are a number of facets to it. But it is now at risk because of changes to criminal legal aid.

It now takes an average of around seven weeks from a defendant being charged to sentence, if convicted, or acquittal.

Inevitably, serious and defended cases take longer but, when accused people accept that they have done wrong, they are usually dealt with very quickly - and fairly.

What's more, the number of convictions is rising. The police have been more successful in detecting offences and solving crimes - even if many people believe their success rate is still far too low - while the Crown Prosecution Service brings only those cases it has a reasonable chance of proving, HM Courts Service has streamlined its operations to reduce abortive court appearances, as has the Probation Service.

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But what is often forgotten is that the whole system could have broken down, and all the improvements frustrated, if defence lawyers had not also played their part.

But now the Government wants to pay them less for their co-operation in legal aid cases and reduce the number of defendants who are entitled to free legal advice at police stations and in the courts.

Understandably, some solicitors are voting with their feet and pulling out of criminal defence work. The rest are crying "foul".

Changes to the legal aid system stem from the Government's concern about the spiralling cost. Yet the biggest cost increases have not been in representation of suspects in police stations or in magistrates' courts.

The costs have risen a little more than inflation in recent years, but the number of cases has increased. In any case, it is nine years since the rate for legal aid was last increased.

But the plan is to pay criminal defenders a £180 fixed fee for up to 14 hours often at dead-of-night, looking after the interests of often-vulnerable suspects accused of anything from shoplifting to murder.

Defending solicitors make the point that their collaboration is vital to the smooth running of the courts. To anyone who spends any time watching the magistrates' courts in action, that seems a reasonable claim.

When they have the luxury of being able to prepare for a case, they are usually articulate, thoughtful, helpful and mercifully brief. But they also deal with cases on the hoof, when they are asked to represent defendants at a few moments' notice.

Although they do complain that they are not properly rewarded, they say that is not their principal beef.

Their real worry is the dilution of justice.

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