Vulnerable left to count the cost of justice
MY learned friends went on strike this week due to Kenny MacAskill trying to push through £4million of cuts.
The public believe there is a ‘gravy train of criminal legal aid’ — but fees were actually cut 20 years ago.
Nobody in the public sector would work at rates of pay set 20 years ago — but lawyers do.
Their reason for striking now is that they believe the cuts will decimate access to justice.
Legal aid is already means tested but by trying to set a threshold so low, many members of the public will be too poor to afford a lawyer and not poor enough to qualify for legal aid.
Kenny claims that 80 per cent will not be affected, but those with a disposable income of just £68 a week will have to pay towards their defence.
If you have a disposable income of £160 per week you will be required to pay £473 in a “contribution”.
If you face bogus charges and are found not guilty, you will still not get your money back.
Innocent people could end up pleading guilty because they simply cannot afford the contributions. Legal aid is vital to protecting the rights of vulnerable people, vital to upholding the rule of law and vital to hold the authorities to account.
These rights are meaningless unless they can be enforced by ordinary Joe Bloggs.
To put it all in context, the NHS costs more than £10.7billion a year in Scotland yet the entire criminal legal aid is less than three days of NHS budget.
Criminal legal aid is not spiralling out of control — it actually fell by 11 per cent over five years. The rule of law allows us to be free to do what we like unless it harms others and no one is above the law.
The legal aid system was introduced over 60 years ago to provide a safety net for those who could not afford to pay for legal assistance.
The Magna Carta written in 1215 stated that ‘Justice should not be sold, delayed or denied’ but that is exactly what will happen if cuts are implemented.
Kenny may be a ‘champion of victims’ but lawyers are fighting for some of the poorest in our society.
Those who need legal aid tend to be the most vulnerable groups — the elderly, the disabled, the abused, children and the mentally ill.
Has Kenny even thought through what the cutbacks could mean? A violent partner not able to afford a lawyer choosing to defend himself could cross-examine his victim in court. How will that encourage victims of abuse to come forward?
Court cases could be adjourned repeatedly as attempts are made by those with limited means to secure a lawyer — costing us more in the long run. Society hates repeat offenders but they are usually on the dole and will pay nothing — it’s the first-time accused who earns the princely sum of £160 or more who will suffer.
Legal aid cuts will mean that thousands of people, especially the poor and vulnerable, will be denied access to justice.
The defence lawyer is the first line of defence for a citizen facing the power of the state.
Tomorrow it could be you, your son or daughter held by the police in a cell, you may be a taxi driver accused of careless driving or a nurse falsely accused by a drunken patient.But whatever the allegation, by then it could be too late.