Senior lawyers are protesting and magistrates understandably resigning over the criminal courts charge. To this affront to justice must be added the legal aid cuts.
In what must surely be a common scenario, a perfectly innocent defendant could enter a plea of guilty while maintaining his innocence, stating he simply cannot afford to risk the charge of up to £1,000 (or £1,200 if it goes to Crown court) in the event of conviction.
The court then has the dilemma of either accepting the plea and potentially doing an immediate injustice, or following the law by treating the equivocal plea as ‘not guilty’ and ordering a trial.
In the latter event, the defendant proceeds to trial. The prosecution has all the skills and resources to prepare its case, collate evidence, and interview and call witnesses.
The innocent defendant, denied those skills and resources to prepare his defence, or if represented, despite the best efforts of his lawyers, having his defence compromised by the effect of legal aid cuts, has a good chance of being convicted.
So the injustice is perpetrated after all. And the court has no discretion to waive the amount even if it thinks the defendant, though technically guilty, deserved a fair crack of the whip.
If not already dead, the presumption of innocence (the ‘golden thread that runs through British justice’ according to Rumpole of the Bailey, for those who remember him) is surely in intensive care.
Michael Gove must consider reversing the breathtakingly draconian measures of his predecessor sooner rather than later.
Chris Leyland, Huddersfield