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Outraged by the £400,000 given to Becky Watts' killers in legal aid? You shouldn't be

Many of us instinctively understand schools and hospitals as vital pillars of the welfare state, but not so a publicly-funded legal system. But innocent people still sometimes go to prison

Jon Robins
Friday 04 March 2016 12:02 GMT
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Nathan Matthews
Nathan Matthews (PA)

The only time legal aid makes headlines is through the regular outbursts of indignation over its perceived excesses, fair or not – and frankly they often aren’t. Witness the outrage at the reports that the killers of Becky Watts were granted more than £400,000 in legal aid.

The 16-year-old was brutally murdered by stepbrother Nathan Matthews in the bedroom of her home in Crown Hill, Bristol, February last year. Matthews was jailed for life and his girlfriend Shauna Hoare received 17 years for manslaughter. As a result of a freedom of information request, we discovered that Matthews alone had been granted £324,549 in legal aid, including £180,808 for his solicitor and £141,479 for counsel.

Staggering sums, indeed; and many will wonder why such odious people should be benefiting from public funds and – if they were to read the more overheated coverage - conclude that the only people who gain are ‘fat cat’ lawyers.

A legal aid story that offering a more insightful picture of the parlous economics of publicly-funded law – but generated a fraction of the interest of yesterday’s story - was the recent U-turn announced by Michael Gove when he ditched plans to foist a model of reform on the profession predicated on slashing the number of firms providing duty advice from around 1,600 to 527.

It was the latest in a series of policies dreamt up by Chris Grayling in his unhappy tenure as Lord Chancellor and binned by his successor (others include a new secure college for young offenders, the ‘book ban’ for prisoners and a court charge for convicted criminals).

Michael Gove also suspended a second 8.75 per cent fee cut on a beleaguered part of a profession that hasn’t had an increase in rates for 20 years.

In response to the furore over the Becky Watts case, the Ministry of Justice has pointed out this that the legal aid spend has fallen by over 20 per cent since 2010.

And yet the inefficiencies of our courts mean costs still madly spiral out of control. A report by the spending watchdog the National Audit Office published this week revealed that two-thirds of trials do not even manage to begin on the scheduled day.

The CPS spent £21.5 million last year preparing cases that never made it to court and the Legal Aid Agency spent £93 million on defence lawyers for cases that were not even heard.

Many of us instinctively understand schools and hospitals as vital pillars of the welfare state, but not so a publicly-funded legal system. We don’t see the value of legal aid - not until, of course, we need it; and only then, sadly, we are likely to receive a crash course in the very real limitations of access to justice.

Anyone accused of a crime in a Crown Court trial is eligible for legal aid, but this is subject to a strict means test preventing the rich (football players, businessmen etc) and the not-so-rich availing themselves of public funds – a defendant's household disposable income must be under £37,000.

By the way, if you have to pay for your own lawyer and you win, there is no guarantee that you will be reimbursed for the huge cost of defending yourself against the full might of the state (remember what happened to the MP Nigel Evans).

Grayling’s criminal courts charge – scrapped by Gove – would have imposed a fee on convicted criminals (on top of any fines or other legal costs) with the purpose of making criminals ‘pay their way’. The scheme created a financial pressure on cash-strapped defendants to admit to offences they had not committed – and ended up with magistrates resigning in droves rather than having to enforce a deeply unfair charge.

Not everyone accused of a crime is guilty. Innocent people end up behind bars. It is essential for both a defendant and the wider public that only the guilty ones go down.

In the case of Becky Watts, the two defendants were shown to be murderers and – as the lawyer puts it - they used taxpayer monies ‘to finance what turned out to be a cynical and desperate attempt to avoid the consequences of their actions’.

Here we should consider the words of defence lawyer Andrew Keogh: ‘All right-minded people would be frustrated when thinking about that, but at the same time they should take comfort that in around 50 per cent of cases, also funded by the taxpayer, the defendant is acquitted. The delivery of an effective justice system is a fundamental human right that must be paid for.’

Outrage in the press - and a failure or unwillingness to understand the realities of our criminal justice system – assist in the undermining of such rights.

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