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Rise in unrepresented defendants causing injustice in criminal court

29th Apr 2016

New research has found that an increase in unrepresented defendants in the criminal courts has led to harsher sentences being handed down by magistrates.

The report, Justice Denied, was produced by charity Transform Justice. The findings said that around one in six people defend themselves in court, and that the rise in in unrepresented defendants had slowed down court processes, thus increasing the chance of unjust decisions.

The charity cited a lack of access to legal aid at the heart of the increase. People with a household income of more than £22,325 are unable to receive legal aid in the magistrates’ court – save for exceptional circumstances – meaning that people must pay high legal fees or go it alone.

A lack of data means no official number of unrepresented people in the magistrates’ court could be cited, highlighting the lack of focus on defendants at the base of the criminal court structure; However, magistrates have reported that 25% of defendants who came before them in 2014 were unrepresented.

The survey also indicated a small increase in unrepresented defendants in the magistrates’ courts from 23% in February 2014 to 27% in November 2014. Whilst official figures from the Crown Courts indicate that people are unrepresented in 6% of cases, the MoJ is expected to publish new data in the upcoming summer.

The rise in unrepresented defendants was found to slow down the courts and increased the chance of unjust outcomes according to many interviewees, who cited the pressure on the court system to deal with cases in a speedy manner.

Prosecution lawyers found that unrepresented defendants often misunderstand the charges they face and are unable to judge the strength or weakness of their defence. Witnesses are also suffering as unrepresented defendants often call them to give evidence unnecessarily.

One prosecutor said the process was “a complete sham and a pale imitation of justice”.