Today’s press highlights Government plans to widen the use of 20mph limits in more urban areas. Many neighbourhoods across the UK will be given the limits in a plan intended to reduce casualties among pedestrians and cyclists; however, many more drivers face losing their licences in this blitz to make Britain's roads 'the safest in the world'. This latest new speed-camera campaign means that more and more people are going to be hauled through the court, but less and less can afford to defend allegations under the current costs regime.
Miss Jeanette Miller of the Association of Motor Offence Lawyers (AMOL), also known as Miss Justice*, was responsible for launching a campaign against a change in the system for innocent defendants’ costs being paid back by the courts when found not guilty. The rules changed on 31 October 2009 despite overwhelming opposition to a consultation that took was finalised earlier in the year. Jeanette remains hopeful that the rules will be nullified retrospectively as a result of her efforts to raise awareness of the issue. Over 20,000 signatures were gathered on her e-petition and the Conservatives took up the issue with support from Shadow Justice Secretary and Human Rights Barrister, Dominic Grieve QC MP. Legal action has since been mounted against the Ministry of Justice by the Law Society and Gordon Brown’s response is now awaited to the e-petition. Motorists watch this space.
Jeanette’s campaign has the support of many MPs, including Nick Ainger who recently wrote to the Ministry of Justice highlighting the issues surrounding Central Funds Payments.
Lord Bach responded to this letter stating:
While the Government accepts that individuals who are acquitted in the magistrates’ court should continue to have access to Central Funds, it is essential that we also target our resources effectively, secure value for money for the taxpayer and control areas of overspend in our budget”.
Miss Justice* comments:
I recognize that government spending may need to be reduced but it will be taxpaying motorists and small businesses who will be most penalized by this rule change. Saving money at the expense of having a fair system with access to justice for all parties accused of a crime is not the answer. It will most likely result in increased costs as lawyers across the country are being briefed on a campaign to make wasted costs applications in every instance of CPS inefficiency which will result in the CPS being forced to pay sums expected to far outweigh the amount the government are seeking to save.”
Lord Bach went onto say:
We believe that the rates we pay for criminal cases under legal aid are both fair and sustainable and should be available to the open market. We believe that lawyers are able to provide a reasonable service at legal aid rates, but is a defendant wants to have, for example, a senior partner’s undivided attention. He may be prepared to pay more for “premium” service, but would have to understand that he would not recover all of these costs.”
Miss Justice feels strongly that there are a number of flaws in Lord Bach’s response. Namely, the Minister has failed to address the most crucial areas where wastage occurs, being the numerous problems within the CPS and court systems. If these were properly addressed savings well beyond the £20million targeted could be achieved without penalizing the innocent defendant!
Lord Bach’s belief that defendants will not be more likely to plead guilty is unfortunately, already proving to be incorrect. At Geoffrey Miller Solicitors, they have seen a massive change in the attitude of those defendants accused of more minor offences and the innocent are accepting punishment as they simply can’t afford to fight injustice. She also disputes Bach’s claim that rates for legal aid are fair and sustainable. She explains it would be impossible for her team to conduct the work with the meticulous level of preparation and care they do under the legal aid/new central funds regime.
Innocent motorists are being punished unfairly and unjustly and the Government’s latest speed camera campaign will just mean that more people are going to be hauled through the court, with less and less able to afford to defend themselves.