Last week former deputy speaker of the House of Commons, Nigel Evans, was acquitted of a number of allegations of very serious sexual offences. It was reported that he said he faced a bill for legal fees of £100,000, and faced financial ruin. Bob Stewart MP complained that people found not guilty, or not otherwise convicted, have to pay their own legal costs, which could be ruinous. Let us remind you how this happened.
Reducing defence costs in criminal cases has been one of the policy objectives of the government, as then Lord Chancellor, Ken Clarke QC MP, told the Commons when introducing the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, “I do not believe the public understand a system that can pay out millions of pounds from taxpayers provided central funds to compensate acquitted companies and wealthy people for their legal costs, whether that involves the £21 million paid to the firms in the Hatfield rail crash case, the £18 million paid to a number of pharmaceutical firms accused of price fixing, or the hundreds of thousands of pounds that have on occasion gone to celebrities accused of affray, assault and other crimes.”
‘Part 2 of [LASPO] therefore establishes that defendants who decline legal aid and pay privately in the higher criminal courts will no longer be able to recover the costs of an expensive private lawyer if acquitted[...]’ (HC Deb, 29 Jun 2011, c995).
Later in that debate, Karl Turner MP warned, “Clause 52 [of LASPO, enacting Schedules 6 & 7] proposes to prevent people from recovering defence costs in Crown courts. If they pay their own fees, they will be prevented from recovering their costs if they are successful at trial. That is a mistake.” (HC Deb, 29 Jun 2011, c1036).”
Clause 52 and Schedules 6 & 7 received almost no amendment. The situation since 27 January 2014 is that defendants are means tested for legal aid. A defendant who is acquitted can claim up to the amount he would have received in legal aid, but only if his application has been considered and rejected by the Legal Aid Agency. He makes up the balance. This change was made by SI. Thus, Mr Evans (or any other defendant acquitted of a criminal offence in the Crown court) has to pay his own legal costs. In effect, Mr Evans will now pay for the privilege of having been prosecuted for a crime he did not commit and you may now be of the view that such a situation is grossly unfair. It is!
These outcomes has been occurring regularly since October 2012. We would guess the legal aid fees for a case such as Mr Evans would only be in the region of £5-10,000. Legal aid fees are based on a fixed rate depending on the page count, nothing extra is paid for unused material or an “active defence”. At police stations a fixed fee is the same for murder or shoplifting, approximately £300 ! Counsel work on a warned list basis –are not paid for conferences and may have to pick up and prepare the trial on the night before.
No-one in their right mind would choose legal aid –it is only when high profile individuals hit the headlines that the damage caused to what was once a fair system becomes apparent.
Our firm has a remarkable success rate on account of our skilled lawyers and attention to detail. The police and CPS often choose to prosecute rather than make a judgement on any detailed assessment of evidence, this also explains the acquittal rates in properly defended cases –others just fall into the general miscarriage piles!
If you are facing the full force of the law make sure you have the best lawyer you can afford even if it may mean financial ruin!