John Halewood-Dodd column

Cuts to legal aid have led to more defendants appearing before the courts unrepresented.

This is causing innumerable difficulties. Many judges have seen fit to speak out regarding their concerns as to whether justice is being done when legal advice and assistance is beyond the means of many.

It saddens me immensely when clients who have been refused legal aid, and who are not in a position to pay for legal representation, feel that they have no alternative other than to plead guilty to offences that they deny committing.

They do not feel able to prepare and conduct a trial themselves so decide that the easiest, and often cheapest, way to resolve the situation is to admit something that they have not done.

Although this is an extremely serious issue I have recently witnessed lay defendants whose advocacy skills led to humorous situations in court.

A young man was before the court only last week following a disagreement with his friend Howard which escalated into a fight. He suggested that Howard was a somewhat forthright character as it always had to be “Howards’ Way.” I had some sympathy with him as the idea of having to endure endless repeats of the 1980s drama set in the yachting community of the English South coast would lead the meekest of individuals to start punching out.

The very next day a young lady, who had fallen on hard times having had her benefits suspended, appeared before the court and pleaded guilty to shoplifting. The Magistrates imposed a small fine and enquired as to what level of payment she could make.

She boldly informed them that she had “unlimited means,” obviously meaning “limited.” This seriously negated her mitigation, and it took the Magistrates over five minutes to explain the faux pas she had made. I am still not sure that she understood but the Magistrates clearly had compassion as they allowed her time to pay the fine at the minimum weekly rate.

Although these examples involve unrepresented defendants there are many instances where trained advocates have dropped similar clangers. In the coming weeks I will try to recall some of the more humorous ones.