The Government’s planned changes to legal aid increase the likelihood of innocent people going to prison, according to the body that investigates miscarriages of justice.
Vulnerable or mentally ill suspects could face a greater risk of conviction because experienced lawyers would not be available to expose false confessions, the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) warned in its response to the proposals.
It expressed concerns that the Government’s planned £220m cuts to the legal aid bill could undermine the ability of lawyers to prevent miscarriages of justice and land the taxpayer with significant sums in trying to put them right.
The response is just the latest critical response to the Government’s plans to prevent suspects from choosing their own solicitor and cuts in lawyers’ fees. It comes after the Government’s own lawyers last week criticised the changes saying that it would create an underclass in Britain with no access to justice.
The view of the CCRC – with the responsibility of scrutinising cases where the justice system has gone wrong – is likely to be seized on by opponents to the Government plans. The CCRC has examined nearly 15,000 cases since it was set up in 1997 and convictions in 328 of those cases have been quashed by the Court of Appeal.
It said the cost of identifying potential miscarriages was much lower if a good solicitor was able to spot it before it resulted in a conviction. “Fair access to high-quality legal representation is an essential feature of the criminal justice system and a bulwark against wrongful or unsafe convictions,” it said.
Preventing miscarriages relied on solicitors having the time to examine and investigate the case. “Any proposals that risk a diminution in the quality of representation, whether in terms of experience or specialist knowledge, will inevitably impact on these areas, which are the corners of a fair trial,” he said.
It highlighted the role of skilful solicitors in identifying files that had not been handed over by the prosecution that could help prove their client’s innocence. The failure of the process known as disclosure is behind many quashed convictions.
“Our experience has shown that the failure of a defence lawyer to examine such material increases the risk of a miscarriage of justice, and anything which might discourage or prevent proper consideration of such material would clearly further enhance that risk,” said the CCRC in its document.
The CCRC handled the case of Warren Blackwell whose conviction for rape was quashed in 2006 after it emerged his accuser had concocted a number of false allegations against other men. However, his legal team at the original trial were never passed notes made by the investigating officer that suggested his accuser was “unstable” and “unreliable”. He served three years in prison.
The body also said the government’s plans did not go far enough to ensure that mentally ill offenders were represented by expert solicitors, who could prevent miscarriages of justice. It warned that “easily suggestible” suspects could make false confessions that would see them falsely imprisoned.
It was also involved in the case of Peter Fell, whose conviction for the 1982 murders of two women was quashed in 2001 after it emerged that his part-confession – swiftly retracted – was made after 54 hours in detention and without any legal representation. The Court of Appeal in 2001 found that the pressure grew on former soldier Mr Fell “until it became overwhelming.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said Britain spent £1 billion a year on criminal legal aid and the sector should not be immune to cuts.
“Professional, qualified lawyers will be available, just as they are now, and contracts will only be awarded to lawyers who meet clear quality standards,” it said. “These changes are about getting the best value for the taxpayer, and will not in any way affect someone's right to a fair trial."