Why does legal aid cost £3.3m?

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A TALK to Tynwald members highlighted inefficiencies in the island’s criminal justice system and suggested ways of improving matters.

The presentation by advocates John Wright and Dawn Jones focused on spiralling legal aid costs which have more or less tripled since 2006, and suggested some of the reasons behind it.

Using the title: Why my £2,000 file is a £5,000 file: legal aid being wasted, Mr Wright outlined a number of problems including failure to consider if a prosecution is in the public interest and ‘complete and utter inability of the Attorney General’s chamber to respond to any letter you send’.

One problem cited was a failure by the prosecution to review cases and a tendency to ‘over charge’, in other words to pursue a higher level charge than the facts merited or would support.

In one case cited, he said CCTV evidence clearly showed a man charged with affray and provoking behaviour had actually been the victim of an attack while standing at a bar. He had denied the charge but it wan’t until 13 months later, one month before the trial date, that the prosecution conceded the charge should be dropped following a review of the evidence.

Other examples were also cited where items had not been disclosed before trial, evidence had not been obtained and cases which relied on poor evidence were only dropped by the prosecution after hundreds of pounds in unnecessary costs had been incurred.

Other problems he said hinged on the use of the out-of-hours duty advocate scheme.

He said legal representatives could receive a night time call to a client at the police station, only to arrive and be kept waiting for an hour or two before any interview could take place.

Moreover, he said police often employed a drip disclosure policy at interview where full particulars of the allegation were not disclosed. This meant an advocate had little option but to advise a client to make no comment in answer to questions until more details were revealed.

Legal aid costs increased from £950,000 in 2006-2007, to £3.3m in 2011-2012.

But the figures included a statutory increase in the hourly rate following the Legal Services Commission Report.

In addition to this, he said from 2010, when the figures had increased to just over £2m, VAT was included in the calculation, which had not previously been the case.

Big cases using outside prosecution and defence personnel also pushed up the figures, often disproportionately, for the defence.

He pointed out the Douglas East by-election trial started with seven QCs – one for each defendant – plus junior counsel. He said the perception was advocates delayed to bump up costs, but this was not the case.

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