Young defendants often felt poorly advised and rushed into pleading guilty, according to a worrying report that reveals a lack of trust and confidence in their lawyers.
Fair Trials, which campaigns for fair and equal criminal justice systems across the globe, said the young people they spoke to for their latest report highlighted a lack of care, and perceived incompetence and impartiality, which resulted in poorly informed choices with far-reaching consequences.
Young people spoke of rushed conversations with lawyers to discuss pleas and not wanting to be a burden. There was also a ‘strong assumption’ that duty solicitors and legal aid lawyers lacked financial incentives to secure the best possible result.
One young person said: ‘I don’t expect them to be honest. Because like, they get paid regardless, they get paid if I lose, win or lose. There’s like, slight. There’s nothing really in it for them like that… If they’re getting paid the bare minimum, you’re going to do the bare minimum… With legal aid it is the bare minimum… they’re going to give you the bare minimum.’
The report is based on survey responses from 27 young adults in prisons across England and Wales, and group discussions with 12 people who have experienced the criminal justice system as young adults.
Fair Trials acknowledges that participants who volunteered for the study might have had strong feelings about their experiences.
‘While this might this have influenced the portrayal of the legal professions in this research, we have no reasons to suspect that the opinions expressed by people who took part in this research were in any way exceptional or unusual,’ the report says.
‘Many people who spoke to us understood that defence lawyers could not always provide the level of assistance they wanted to provide for reasons outside their control. There was awareness, for example, that the justice system was operating at far beyond its intended capacity, which resulted in heavy caseloads, and that the current legal aid system simply did not allow defence lawyers to put in the necessary time and effort into their clients’ cases.’
Fair Trials highlighted the need for a more detailed understanding of the root causes behind young people’s perceptions and ‘ample room for improvement’ on the quality of legal assistance provided to young adults.
A Law Society spokesperson said: 'This report is based on a small, self-selected sample and blurs criticism of barristers and solicitors, which makes it difficult to be sure how widespread the concerning issues it raises actually are.
'If a solicitor does not spend as much time with a client as the client would have liked this would not in itself be evidence of a solicitor failing to meet their professional obligations.
'Nonetheless, the report is a reminder of the potential loss of trust in the criminal justice system that may arise if defence lawyers are not paid sufficiently to spend time building their client’s confidence in them and in the system.
'Solicitors are the backbone of our criminal justice system but will continue to leave the profession in their droves unless they are fairly remunerated for the crucial work they do.'
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