Tuesday, February 03, 2004

The poor don't need lawyers anyway...

The British government is planning to end legal aid for first-offenders and petty-criminals. First time burglars, petty thieves and drink-drivers will no longer have lawyers provided for them, unless they are facing prison. Instead, they will be advised how to plead by the Magistrate or Clerk of the Court (!) So much for impartiality...

It's all about saving money, of course - but at the cost of justice and social equality. In particular, it raises the spectre of a return to a class-based justice system. Adequete representation is a significant factor in convictions; people with lawyers are far less likely to be found guilty than those without. British conservatives will no doubt claim that the wealthy simply don't commit petty crimes (of course not - they never drive drunk, their kids are never stupid teenagers, and they never stole a policeman's helmet in the wild days of their youth); and besides, they're not facing prison, only a fine, so it's not like it really does any harm, does it?

Obviously they've never been accused of something they didn't do. Neither have I, but unlike conservatives, I don't assume that everyone accused of a crime is automaticly guilty.

This is a significant erosion of the rights of the accused, and likely to lead to more miscarriages of justice, but it gets worse. The British government doesn't only want to stop the poor and vulnerable from consulting lawyers - they want to stop everyone:

Ministers also want to end the automatic right to legal advice after a defendant has been charged and before his or her appearance in court. Another proposal will limit the provision of legal advice in the police station to telephone advice in certain cases where a solicitor cannot "advance" the client's case by attending the police station.

In other words, it's all about upping the conviction rate by exploiting people's ignorance of the law to get them to confess or plead guilty. And this from a supposedly Labour government.

Once more, I'm glad to live in a sane country, where we understand that justice costs money, and that the poor as well as the rich need lawyers...