In addition to committing to spending on GOOD science (see my earlier post here… ), governments have a responsibility to provide free legal representation to those who cannot afford it. This responsibility however, is being increasingly shirked by many governments, who see legal aid (as it’s called in the UK) as a cost that can be cut. This is dangerous territory. One of the leading causes of miscarriages of justice is poor legal representation. In addition, if a defendant has NO, or very poor, legal representation, little can be done to challenge other defects in the criminal process and flawed evidence leading to wrongful convictions. In the UK, there are also major concerns that the lack of funding for lawyers will lead to many more legal professionals opting out of doing any criminal legal aid work, or doing so in such numbers (to make it worth their while financially) that they will merely be able to offer the most basic of services, with great temptation to get suspects to ‘plead’ early to avoid spending more time than necessary on making a defence. See some commentary on the cuts here…
The cuts are combined with measures such as ‘Best Value Tendering’, where legal firms must submit the lowest bid in order to secure rights to defend suspects – an immediate attack on quality. In response, the government is trying to introduce ‘QASA’ – Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates. The introduction of this scheme has already led to unprecedented action among the legal profession and seems set to incite strike action soon. There are also suggestions being made that volunteer legal advice centres – including those set up in law schools, can pick up the work. Putting an incredible burden on these resource-poor and inexperienced individuals.
Similar plans to cut legal aid are moving ahead across Australia too:
In the UK in particular, legal aid is being cut from certain individuals altogether, with prisoners no longer eligible. Proper legal representation is not a luxury. It will not be long before any economic benefits at all are wiped out by the increased costs of failed trials and wrongful convictions.