A district judge has highlighted the difficulties faced by vulnerable people finding a solicitor because of challenges in the way the legal aid system works.
Prior to sentencing Worcesteshire woman Marie Baker to 24 weeks in prison for breaching an anti-social behaviour injunction on two occasions, district judge Phillip Mackenzie said in Festival Housing Limited v Baker that he was ‘disturbed and concerned’ that the defendant was in court without the help of any public funding or a solicitor.
Mackenzie, sitting at Worcester County Court, said Baker was a 'fragile and vulnerable’ individual who has difficulty reading, writing and understanding, ’and that makes it all the more regrettable that she has not got legal assistance’.
Mackenzie said he considered ‘very carefully’ whether it would be ‘right and proper’ to proceed when Baker wanted to have a solicitor but did not have one. However, he concluded that she could have a fair hearing because 'every opportunity has been afforded to her to prepare a case with assistance from a solicitor, but through no fault of her own, she has not been able to secure that'.
Mackenzie was dealing with a committal application in connection with two breaches of an injunction on 25 November last year and 2 January this year.
From the time the breaches came before him in December, Mackenzie said efforts had been made to try to secure representation. A solicitor in Redditch seemed prepared to take on Baker’s case, but was unclear about his ability to get legal aid.
Mackenzie said: 'Three or four years ago, the president of the family division made it clear that legal aid in these sorts of cases, though it is for a civil contempt, is criminal legal aid. That has caused some difficulty, because of the way legal aid works with solicitors getting fragmented franchises for dealing with specific types of work.
'This court has experienced, on more than one occasion, great difficulties in getting a solicitor who is prepared to deal with criminal legal aid for a committal in breach of Housing Act injunctions. It has proved somewhat difficult.’
Mackenzie said it was ‘wholly unsatisfactory that the system conspires against a vulnerable individual like this, so that she cannot get the legal aid and solicitor assistance that she really needs’.
The judgment states that Baker had been begging in the streets of Malvern and Worcester 'in such circumstances as to cause, not only a general nuisance but particularly a begging involving elderly and vulnerable people'.
'Aggravating' factors to the case were the 'repeat and continuing disobedience of court orders', Mackenzie said. 'One day, 28 days and three-month sentences have already been passed in a relatively short period of time and they appear to have had no impact despite Ms Baker's protestations that her last period in prison has taught her a lesson. It clearly has not. There has been an appalling history of disobedience to the court orders,' he added.
The district judge highlighted mitigating factors, which he 'thought hard about particularly bearing in mind that Ms Baker has not got a solicitor to draw these out to their fullest extent'.
Mackenzie said the 'real mischief of these injunctions was to stop begging involving vulnerable members of the public, and people known to Ms Baker. Both the incidents I am dealing with, had been begging from a Street Ranger, not a vulnerable individual'.
On both occasions, Baker had 'simply asked for 50p. It has not been in an aggressive way. She has been told "no" and she has not persisted. There is no aggravating feature in the way she has done this', Mackenzie said.
The district judge was relucant to send Baker to prison for a lengthy period of time, but 'I have got to mark the blatant repeat breaches of this injunction with something meaningful', he said.
A Legal Aid Agency spokesperson said: 'Our published guidance confirms that cases of this nature are dealt with under criminal legal aid. However, civil providers can apply for an individual case contract to carry out these cases where appropriate.'