It’s five years now, or thereabouts, since the Government brought into effect legal aid restrictions. The impact very quickly was felt across several areas of law, from civil and family law right up to the prosecution of criminal allegations. In criminal cases, of course, there is often the additional worry in the background of imprisonment.
Here is a short article from BBC News in April 2013 where several lawyers commented on how people may get on representing themselves in court.
1. Can you get advice for free or pretty cheaply?
The then-Chair of the Bar Council, Maura McGowan (she is now a High Court Judge) had some sensible advice for everyone who finds they cannot get legal aid:
“First of all, look and see if you can get advice from a voluntary agency … secondly, stop and see if you can find £50, £70 or £100 and buy a small piece of time with a lawyer.”
Whether you are involved in a family case or you want to sue to get your money back in a civil case this is good advice. But it’s equally sensible advice if you find yourself being prosecuted for a criminal allegation. Never forget that, even if you can’t afford someone to represent you at court, you may be able to buy time with an experienced criminal barrister who can advise you about how best to prepare your case. The first chapter of my book explains the different ways that you may be able to obtain legal advice and / or representation.
2. Judges will do their best to help you
Another lawyer featured in the article says this:
“It is imbued in every judge that part of their job is to ensure there is a level playing field. No judge wants to see their decision overturned on appeal. They want to know they got it right.”
He is right. You can’t expect a judge to explain to you what is best for you; judges can’t advise you because they must strive to be independent. But judges will always give you time to consider your next steps and they will help you understand the procedures and the law.
3. Prepare. Prepare. Prepare.
A major piece of advice in the article is to make sure you prepare the case. No criminal lawyer ever turns up at court unprepared confident that she will just ‘turn on the magic’. Our approach to cases is often affected by instinct and a ‘feel’ for what is best, but do not confuse this with lack of preparation.
Look at it this way: if experienced criminal lawyers never turn up unprepared, neither should you. Fast forward to your trial. Whilst the judge can certainly help you understand what is happening, and what will happen next, this is of little use to you when you are preparing your case because at trial the preparation period is long gone.
Often these days it can take several months for criminal cases to come to trial. You should use this time carefully to prepare yourself and your approach to the case. It’s exactly why I have subtitled my book “What to expect. How to prepare.”