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My article in the Barrister magazine on the key things people should consider when representing themselves

Read the article here.

From the introduction to the article:

“In my twenty plus years at the Bar, I have seen many people representing themselves who have little idea what they are doing. Lack of experience is not their fault – how are they to know what to do? Criminal practitioners start their practice prosecuting unrepresented defendants in the Magistrates’ Courts. But unrepresented defendants in the Crown Courts? That was a rare thing.

The rise of the unrepresented defendant in the Crown Courts has long been foretold. Unrepresented not by choice, but by necessity. There has been an unspoken contract that, as the level of charge gets serious enough to come within the wider sentencing powers of circuit judges, so it is more likely that legal aid will be granted. That contract was broken by a revised ‘means test’ that removed legal aid from a swathe of society, then smashed when it became impossible for acquitted defendants (who had paid privately for their defence) to recover their costs beyond the level that legal aid would have paid.”

Nigel Booth’s book “How Do I Defend Myself At Court: What To Expect, How To Prepare” is available from Amazon.co.uk. The book’s website can be found at www.HowDoIDefendMyself.com.

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How to cope with the court’s digital system when you’re defending yourself

This is a topic that I warn you about in my book How Do I Defend Myself At Court? The court professionals, judge and barristers and solicitors, all have access to an online digital storage system that holds all the documents for your case. Its called the Digital Case System, or ‘DCS’ for short. The only snag is: if you’re defending yourself, you can’t access any of it.

The problem is highlighted in a report in today’s Times which you can read here. The report states:

Although the number of people without access to any online services might be small, the district judges said that self-represented defendants form a “far larger group of often tech-savvy but nonetheless digitally excluded people” due to the cuts in access to legal aid.

and

The Magistrates Association raised the same issues and voiced concern over the “potential negative impact video technology could have on ensuring fair and effective participation” by many, particularly those who are young or vulnerable.

If you are representing yourself in the criminal courts, you will likely feel very excluded from what is going on in your own case. The Judge, or Magistrates, and all the barristers and solicitors, will have ready access to all the documents – but you won’t. So what can you do?

At present, the only way that the court system is equipped to help you is by making sure that you are provided with paper copies of all the documents, and where some material is recorded (such as CCTV or a phone call) by making sure that you are given a copy on disk. Mostly it will be the Prosecution who have to help you this way, because it will be the Prosecution who are bringing you to court and producing evidence to try and prove your guilt. They must give you copy of all the evidence that they are producing against you.

The best advice to you is to remind all the legal professionals involved in your case at every court hearing that you go to that you need to be sent everything in the post – do not assume that everyone will remember this for themselves. And check at every court hearing that the Prosecution have recorded your address correctly – do not assume that because you told them your address at the last court hearing, that they will still have it correctly recorded.

A quick look back to when the restrictions on legal aid began to bite

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.”

paperback cover, revised 26.12.18. with SJB logo JPEG

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