An increasing number of people are choosing to represent themselves in Crown Court, many due to legal aid or funding issues.
Unrepresented defendants are still the exception, of course, but Ministry of Justice (MoJ) statistics show that in 2015 7,000 people had no legal representation at their first Crown Court hearing, compared to 5,500 in 2010.
One possible explanation for the increase is changes made to criminal legal aid in January 2014, which mean that defendants whose disposable annual income is £37,500 or more are not eligible for legal aid.
An MoJ study entitled ‘Exploratory research into unrepresented defendants in the Crown Court in England and Wales – perspectives from a small sample of practitioners’ has shone a light on some of the consequences of not having proper representation.
In-depth interviews were conducted with 15 Crown Court judges and six Crown Court prosecutors who broadly agreed that unrepresented defendants:
- Were less able to participate effectively in hearings due to limited understanding of the court process.
- Were often linked to longer hearings and slower progress with cases, again due to problems preparing for hearings and disruption during court appearances.
- Were less likely to achieve an early guilty plea because of a lack of understanding of the concept of pleas and discounts to sentences.
- Could have a negative effect on witnesses facing cross-examination by their alleged perpetrator.
It is unclear whether people who defend themselves are more or less likely to be found guilty, but there is no doubt in my mind that proper legal representation in court gives defendants a distinct advantage.
A good legal team has a wealth of knowledge and experience to draw on. They know how to sift through the evidence and liaise with the Crown Prosecution Service to maximise a defendant’s chance of a swift and successful outcome.
I can only imagine how daunting, nerve-wracking and utterly bewildering it must be to face the prospect of appearing in Crown Court without representation and, on that basis, I would argue that self-representation should be avoided if at all possible.