Is access to justice a class issue? It is undoubtedly the case that if you are wealthy, you can afford to employ skilful lawyers in the civil or criminal courts, but new laws are creating injustice for the wealthy, and those on middle incomes, too.
New court fees have just been introduced into the civil courts which mean that if you sue someone for £200,000, you have to pay £10,000 in court fees – an increase of eight times the previous rate. An individual has a choice whether to sue, but no-one can escape justice if they are prosecuted. Legal aid is means tested so many not particularly wealthy defendants are not eligible for it and have to either pay for a lawyer or represent themselves. They would be extremely lucky to find a lawyer willing to act for them on legal aid rates, so they pay higher private rates – rates which give the lawyer proper recompense for their work.
But the shocking aspect of the system today is that people are losing huge sums when they are prosecuted, regardless of the outcome. I met Daniel – an ordinary, well-networked man in his 50s who had never previously been in trouble with the law. But a year ago he was drinking in a bar with some friends and acquaintances. All were merry. One woman suddenly bashed herself with the candlestick on the table and ended up bruised and bleeding. Daniel gallantly took the woman, whom he hardly knew, to A&E and sat with her while she was patched up, and sobered up. He put her in a taxi home and thought no more of it.
So Daniel was astonished when, a few days later, the police turned up and charged him with assaulting the woman. He got a lawyer and assumed the case would never come to court. But despite many letters from his solicitors pointing out there was no case to answer, the case did come to court. It collapsed after a couple of days, because there was no evidence. At that point Daniel assumed he would get his legal costs back – after all, he had been exonerated. But in fact he got no money back and discovered that he would have to prove the prosecution was perverse to get any of his legal costs back.
He lost £40,000 and would have lost far more if the trial had been completed and he had been acquitted. Several high profile people have ended up in a similar position. Nigel Evans lost £130,000 when acquitted of rape and sexual assault, Charlie Brooks (husband of Rebekah) lost £500,000 defending himself while Stuart Kuttner, managing editor of the News of the World, lost £130,000. All were found innocent and yet were penalised financially with the judge saying they had ‘brought suspicion on themselves and misled the prosecution into thinking that the case against them was stronger than it was’.
It has to be said that the law has been modified. If you are now acquitted or your cases collapses, you can recoup your legal fees, but only to the level legal aid would have paid and only if you remembered to apply for legal aid in the first place. So people with reasonable incomes are scuppered any which way. They will be hard put to find a lawyer who will work privately at legal aid rates (not surprising given legal aid rates), but if they are found innocent they have no way of getting their full legal costs back.
Why hasn’t this caused a public outcry? Maybe anyone who get prosecuted is worried about drawing attention to their case or they just want to move on and forget such a traumatic experience. I can think of little worse than being accused of a crime I did not commit, and having to spend my life savings defending myself. This is as much injustice as the new court fees, or the prospect of not being able to find a legal aid lawyer. And risks undermining everyone’s trust in the justice system.
Penelope worked in radio production and at the BBC before moving into the voluntary sector. Penelope set up the campaigning charity Transform Justice (www.transformjustice.org.uk) in 2012. She is also chair of the Standing Committee for Youth Justice