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February 19, 2015

A fog surrounding unrepresented defendants in the criminal courts

The civil courts are bring thrown into chaos by the number of litigants in person – people representing themselves and not using a lawyer.  In the civil courts, it is pretty clear why so many are struggling alone – since changes to legal aid, only a tiny proportion of litigants have access to free representation.  But the reason for an apparent increase in unrepresented defendants in the criminal courts is less clear.  Though there are huge changes pending to the way lawyers are paid, eligibility for legal aid for defendants has not changed much in recent years.  But a recent survey by the Magistrates’ Association suggest that there is an increase in litigants in person (LiPs) in the magistrates’ courts.  The MA did two surveys in February and November 2014.  In some cases the response numbers are very small, but some trends are clear.  In February the proportion of LiPs was already high at 25%, but increased to 29% by November.  There have always been offences like minor traffic which have not been eligible for legal aid but the MA gives an alarming picture of other hearings where number of LiPs are high.  In November 14% of remand hearings were unrepresented, as were 23% of sentencing hearings and 22% of criminal trials.  How people cope with such important hearings without a lawyer is not clear but this Independent article on the research quotes some magistrates who were convinced that LiPs are disadvantaged.  This makes sense. The legal process is very complex and many who are represented, do not understand what is going on during their court hearing, as this new book on the Crown Court makes clear.  What is more of a mystery is why so many litigants are representing themselves.  Some people think it is because legal aid funding doesn’t come through in time, others that more people are now excluded from the legal aid means test.  I am investigating, and will update you as I find out more….