Gideon’s Army is an award winning documentary film which follows the work of three public defence lawyers in the US. According to the blurb for the film the lawyers are underpaid and carry “staggering caseloads” as they try to provide defence services to people accused of crimes in the Deep South of America. The film, which was released in July, takes its name from the case of Gideon v. Wainwright in the US Supreme Court which established the principle that a citizen when accused of a crime has the right to counsel. However, fifty years on from this landmark case, public defenders cannot provide more than a basic service to the very poorest. The service seems to amount to no more than a constitutional fig leaf and ordinary Americans to ensure equality before the law are forced to pay for the privilege or, take their chances.
It can be argued that things are different in the UK. The vast majority of the population are entitled to legal aid if they are accused of a crime and this pays for the best lawyers available. New research though, indicates that standards are slipping and more cuts to criminal legal aid could further compromise a system which is already feeling the strain of continued budget reductions.
Daniel Newman’s book Legal Aid Lawyers and the Quest for Justice, is a profoundly depressing read. It is based on his research which followed the work of three criminal defence firms working in the magistrate’s court in a large English town. Newman found that while the lawyers he interviewed painted a positive picture of their relationship with their clients, they in fact treated them with a “wanton disrespect”. Of most concern were his findings that the lawyers spent as little time as possible with their clients, regularly wrongly pushed them towards making early guilty pleas and neglected to properly prepare their defence.
It should be stressed that this is a one-off study centred on one town, but LAG believes the findings of the research are concerning enough to raise questions about the standards across legal aid criminal defence services. The lawyers, according to Newman, blame the reduction in legal aid revenue as the reason for poor quality work. Newman believes that while legal aid cuts have exacerbated a decline in professional standards, this is not a complete explanation of what is going wrong with the practice of criminal law. He argues that the legal profession is in need of “ethical renewal” through better training in law schools and monitoring of professional standards.
Newman’s research could indicate that the North American system portrayed in Gideon’s Army is not as far away as some might like to imagine. The constant cutting of legal aid fees is in danger of acting as a catalysis for a catastrophic decline in professional standards and risk the criminal legal aid system becoming as much as a false pretence as its American equivalent.
Link to Gideon’s Army trailer-
Details of Legal Aid Lawyers and the Quest for Justice-