Justice denied to growing number of DIY defendants
The number of defendants representing themselves in the criminal courts has grown significantly, research from a charity has revealed.
Transform Justice’s report, Justice denied? The experience of unrepresented defendants in the criminal courts (April 2016) said that around six per cent of defendants are unrepresented in the Crown Court. There are no official figures for the number of unrepresented defendants in the magistrates’ courts, but magistrates and district judges questioned for the report variously estimated the proportion from 15 per cent to 40 per cent of non-traffic cases. All interviewees indicated that they felt numbers had increased recently. The lack of data, says the report, means unrepresented defendants in the magistrates’ courts are ‘invisible’ in policy terms, but they have an ‘immense’ impact on court staff, judges and advocates, and increase the length of cases.
Judges and lawyers felt that unrepresented defendants are at a ‘disadvantage’ and one magistrate pointed out that luck plays its part in the outcome, depending on the experience of the bench and the lawyers in dealing with unrepresented people.
Prosecutors were concerned that unrepresented defendants do not understand what they are charged with and plead not guilty when they would have been advised not to. They suggested that defendants will accept the charge against them without understanding the implications, or that alternatively, lesser charges might be more appropriate.
Unrepresented defendants often fail to call the right witnesses to back up their defence, and witnesses are subjected to clumsy cross-examination that in some circumstances is abusive, but most respondents felt that unrepresented defendants get disproportionately harsh punishments because they have ‘no idea how to mitigate’.
Transform Justice director Penelope Gibbs said: ‘Our system is not fit for DIY lawyers: we either need to provide people with legal advice or redesign the system to make it simpler.’
The independent report was based on interviews with 10 prosecuting barristers, four district judges and seven magistrates; court observations and a survey of 42 other prosecutors and a separate survey of 54 people, most of whom were solicitors.