May 11, 2018
We are already seeing the dreadful effects of legal underfunding, as people are forced to defend themselves with only the vaguest idea of what they’re doing
here is a strike under way that you’ve probably barely heard about, although its implications are as grave as any that make the headlines. This one doesn’t involve train drivers, enraging as those stoppages are for stranded commuters. It doesn’t involve university lecturers, diverting as those have been for students, or even junior doctors. It involves criminal barristers from 100 chambers who, in protest against government reforms of legal aid fees, are refusing to take on new publicly funded cases – or in other words, defences of people who can’t afford their own lawyers.
The courts haven’t ground to a halt, so defendants are still ending up in the dock. It’s just that more of them are now attempting to represent themselves, often with only the vaguest idea of what they’re doing, on charges ranging all the way up to murder. The risk of miscarriages of justice is screamingly obvious, especially when it comes to disclosure of evidence – how are complete amateurs to know what useful material the prosecution could be hanging on to? – but defendants are not the only potential victims here. If it’s hard enough for witnesses to relive distressing experiences with the accused glowering silently at them from the dock, then imagine what it’s like when he or she’s the one conducting the cross-examination.