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This is why granting legal aid saves money

Yesterday I represented a man accused of criminal damage.  I collected the papers from the prosecutor but when I went through them I thought I must have been missing something.  He was accused of causing just £40 worth of damage to a piece of plastic on a car, he had no previous convictions and had spent 10-days in prison thus far.

Given that on conviction he was likely to receive a fine in the region of £100 plus costs and £40 compensation for the repair I was pretty surprised that he had been remanded for so long.

When I spoke to him it emerged that he was technically homeless, which in the minds of many magistrates seems to equate with untrustworthy and thus inclined to skip bail.  It also turned out that he hadn't received any legal advice prior to speaking with me, nor had he seen the papers in his case and was thus mostly unaware of the accusation against him.

Yesterday's hearing was the third listing as the Prison Service failed to produced him for the last hearing and a trial date had already been fixed because of the insistence of magistrates that they must "case manage" at the very first hearing regardless of the circumstances facing them. 

Prior to each hearing the prosecutor would have had to read all the papers in the case to prepare.  The Prison Service have had to arrange transportation of the prisoner as well as housing and feeding him for 10-days (according to one newspaper that's a cost of £770 excluding transportation).  During each hearing (including the one he didn't show up for) there would have been a list caller, legal adviser and prosecutor in court.  Probation officers had also become involved trying to find a bail hostel to get this man out of prison.  Finally, as English was not this man's first language and his English was not up to understanding the court proceedings there was an interpreter present at all three hearings.

After the hearings the court and CPS administrators would have had to spend time resulting the case and updating the computer records.  By the time you factor in the cost of court staff, lighting, heating etc I feel confident in saying that this case has cost the tax payer well over £2,000 and quite possibly more than £3,000.

Yesterday I show up.  I had a short chat with the client.  I explained the evidence against him and told him where it was supposed to have happened as well as listening to what he had to say.  He told me he was drunk and doesn't remember much at all.  But when faced with the (overwhelming) evidence he accepted that he probably had committed the offence and asked to be allowed to change his plea to guilty.

He was sentenced to a £50 fine, deemed served by the time he spent in prison and was told to pay the £40 compensation within 2-weeks.

I don't really expect that I'll get paid for this case.  But, if the LSC do grant legal aid then my fee will be about £240 (legal aid rates were recently reduced and I'm not sure what the current fee is off the top of my head).  This is a standard fee set by the Government.  For the sake of that £240 fee at the first hearing we could have saved the costs of locking him up, transporting him and two court hearings.  If he'd been introduced to the duty solicitor at the first hearing then there wouldn't have even been the £240 fee!  In that case the case would have probably cost around £500 - £750 including my fee!

Once we have more unrepresented defendants who either cannot or will not pay privately then you will quickly find that the costs of the court system go up overall because nobody is being told to hold their hands up when they clearly have no hope of winning!  You'll also find that if you or a loved one are accused of a crime or are a victim of a crime and have to give evidence then you'll be waiting for justice for a very very long time as the courts creak over closer to total seizure.

Comments

  1. It would be difficult to disagree with the general tone of your comments. You don`t mention whether this offender was a frequent visitor to the courts owing no doubt to his drinking. If that were indeed the case and he had no fixed abode how on earth could a bench bail him to attend? His not speaking to the duty before his appearance or more significantly not having his case put back for that purpose points perhaps to a bench more interested in the theory rather than the substance of "speedy justice". A big problem is the number of defendants for whom it is considered an interpreter is required. Even if bail hostel places were available in abundance [perhaps when the cows come home] he might not have been accepted. Whilst in totality your case is not common the new pressure to plead at 1st hearing is just an added impediment; your client would not have been better off a few years ago in my humble opinion of course.

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  2. We see the supposed cost cutting to the legal aid budget has the opposite effect of in fact driving up the cost.

    The purpose is clearly not to save money but to drive providers out of the market.

    One examples (of a very many i could give)
    - Domestic violence trials where defendant is not eligible for legal aid due to earnings. So we can't get a legal aid order to do the trial - court has to instruct solicitors to cross examine at private rates. Resulting bill is 3 times what legal aid would have been if not more.

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  3. Not a bad result though - 10 days for a criminal damage charge.

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  4. JotP, as I said he had no previous convictions and I can confirm that this was also his first time before a court! He doesn't have a problem with drink, he'd just been out and had too many one night. I don't know why he didn't see the duty in the first place. I got the impression from him that he didn't understand what was happening and in my experience it's not uncommon for some people to be over looked as duty's rely upon the goalers to tell them who to represent. In this chap's case he's technically homeless because he keeps his costs down by living with friends of sleeping in the places where he is working.

    Anon CDS, I agree. The Government constantly introduces legal aid reforms with the tag line "these changes will be cost neutral", which means won't mean a loss of income for lawyers even though that is always what they do. I've long believed that the changes started by Tony Blair were aimed at fusing the professions by forcing solicitors to undertake HCA work and barristers to look toward litigation.

    Anon, personally I think 10 days is excessive for a criminal damage, but if others think that sentences should be longer then it's not really an argument I'm going to get into. Sometimes they should, sometimes they shouldn't.

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  5. Agree with your blog and have come across many situations like this. Bench, LA all try to help but doesn't make up for no solicitor. The main problem is the Government and bean counters do not understand the legal system and how it works. Can't see it getting any better.

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  6. Further to my last comment about people being missed by duty solicitors at court - it's also worth remembering that at Thames Mags the duties are now heavily overworked since the new year because of mergers. Yesterday the court 1 had a list of 50, mostly custody's and judging from the board in the cells a large proportion of those wanted to see the duty solicitor. This makes missing a defendant that much easier.

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