Should There be a Limit on Legal Aid in Criminal Law?

The Criminal Justice System in British Law has one fundamental basis. Innocent until proven guilty, and this entitles a person who is charged with a crime the right to a defence and a defence Lawyer. If a person is arrested and charged with a crime, those who qualify for legal aid will have their defence Lawyer paid for by the taxpayer. Guilt is based on the burden of proof – beyond reasonable doubt based on the evidence presented, and a person can be a convicted only by a jury of their peers in a trial. Magistrates can convict a person, but the powers of a magistrate court are limited in terms of case-management and sentencing powers.

What then with repeat offenders? It is no secret that crime has risen in the UK. The legal cost to the taxpayer is debated by much of the British public, and the cost of repeat offenders who are using the revolving door of the CJS are a burden on the legal aid purse. 

The Right to a Defence 

Regardless of how many times a person commits a crime, the rights of a defendant in criminal law never change. That person has the right to a defence and to be represented by a criminal defence Lawyer. This protects the defendant, and the cost of the defence is paid for by the Legal Aid Commission, which pays the defence Lawyers for their counsel in court should that defendant qualify for legal aid.

Repeat Offenders Abusing Legal Aid 

Without going into the semantics of why people re-offend, there is little doubt that a proportion of the monstrous legal aid bill can only be caused by those people who consistently never get off the hamster wheel of offending behaviour and, therefore, have direct access to legal aid funding. This in itself is a burden on the law-abiding and hard-working citizens of Britain who fund the legal aid purse. 

Those offenders who never reach desistance due to their lifestyles seemingly have little concern for what this costs the country as a whole. Therefore, should they have unlimited access to the public purse? The majority of the British taxpayers think not. A system such as three strikes and you’re out and cutting the apron strings to legal aid would perhaps govern offenders into rethinking their unlawful behaviour. 

Re-offending is a problem, and plugging the gap with regards to access should be a matter for the Ministry of Justice. The recent LASPO changes in cutting the legal aid bill have affected many areas of law in terms of access to legal aid, which have been debated in such amendments affecting the more vulnerable in society. Those who repeatedly offend and have access to a free defence may well contain vulnerabilities but never change their patterns of behaviours. 

Why, therefore, should a Lawyer paid for by the public be provided continually by people who don’t break the law? Is it any wonder repeat offenders are not given any sympathy? Limiting routes to legal aid may well affect a persistent offender in that he or she may not have the luxury of a publicly paid-for defence Lawyer. Would that be enough of a deterrent to stop them offending if they had to represent themselves? If they have access to legal aid, it is highly unlikely they have the legal means to be able to fund privately a defence Lawyer.

The cost of legal aid needs addressing, and repeat offenders are a large burden on our society. Blocking access to funding from the Legal Services Commission for repeat offenders who are found guilty is a way forward. It’s a hornet’s nest which is often kicked in the media yet never actually dealt with, and in the meantime we have repeat offenders with unlimited access to legal aid as their behaviour continues.