I read Ms Labinjoh’s Comment of 2 February with interest, as on the same day something really quite concerning occurred in our magistrates’ court. Though not of the same magnitude as the events to which she alluded, together they illustrate the divide between practitioners and the government in the awaited JR decision on criminal legal aid.
For practitioners, justice is fairness for the individual and justice delayed sees the individual frustrated in a Kafkaesque nightmare. The government sees justice as nothing more than the machinery of the criminal justice system; and justice delayed as not being able to reach finality through shortcut.
We had two separate clients for first appearances. Legal aid applications were submitted and received by the court the preceding Wednesday. By Monday, the court had not yet processed the applications. The clients went to court unrepresented, explained the problem of the legal aid application and asked for an adjournment because they did not know what to do without advice on the papers they had just received from the front desk.
The court’s view was that they had had enough time to arrange a solicitor and no delay would be allowed. Apparently, the court not processing the applications within the targets set by the Legal Aid Agency can now be laid at the door of the defendant.
Not feeling quite comfortable, perhaps, in dealing with unrepresented defendants, the magistrates moved the matters into another court, where a district judge had no qualms in extracting guilty pleas, absent any opportunity for the defendants to go through their papers and discuss the elements of the offences with a legal professional. One client was sentenced there and then; the other was committed to the Crown court for sentencing.
The recent statement by Labour and the continued fight by criminal practitioners is to be lauded as a modern-day ‘shield wall’ against the further erosion of the doctrine of separation of powers by an increasingly authoritarian government which brooks no dissent. Consider the disproportionate use of force by the police recently at Warwick University and the way many other peaceful protests are dealt with. Well done, Ms Labinjoh for highlighting this.
Also, consider the growing number of ‘check-box’ judges; the removal of real discretion by the Criminal Procedure Rules; the increased powers of the executive to make law through secondary legislation; the loss of judicial independence through the politicisation of the lord chancellor’s office; the attempted diminution of judicial review; and growing ‘anti-rights’ sentiment.
What a success it would be for the government to emasculate the criminal defence community to a point where defendants and protesters can be treated like commodities on a production line.
Thank you to everyone involved in the ongoing resistance to the government’s criminal legal aid plan. At stake is not the future of criminal defence practitioners, but the individual’s protection against the unbridled power of the state.
Hans Dieter Kehler, DB Law, Camborne