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Legal aid proposal will have disastrous effect on Justice of the Peace courts

I write in support of Brian Mohan's criticisms of the proposal to collect legal aid fees in some summary criminal cases via defence agents (Letters, November 14).

One aspect not touched on directly in Mr Mohan's summary of the situation is the impact on the work of magistrates at the Justice of the Peace (JP) courts, who would be faced with a considerable increase in the number of defendants, currently represented by solicitors, who will appear on their own behalf.

It may be some years since the justice minister was active in court work, but has he paused to consider the effect on JP court trials his proposals will guarantee?

Unrepresented accused almost inevitably require guidance and assistance, in particular in questioning witnesses, and frequently have to be reminded not to make evidential statements of their own while doing so. A large increase in such cases will irreparably damage court diary programming and consequently produce knock-on costs in court time. Fiscals depute will also be placed in a much more difficult position in conducting their prosecutions at a time when there are many inexperienced deputes servicing the lower courts. Very few JPs are legally qualified. And even experienced magistrates will find conducting many more trials involving unrepresented accused fraught with danger in terms of trying to lead the defendant through a trial without jeopardising the strict neutrality of the Bench.

This proposal is a recipe for disaster for both the accused, who will lose the services of an expert representative if they fall above the new financial threshold or cannot pay the bill, and the victims, many of whom will now face their alleged assailant directly across the courtroom during evidence. Trials will be seriously prolonged to the detriment of all participants.

Finally, the behaviour of the SNP members of the justice committee, who initially apparently supported their colleagues in opposing the measure and were then presumably whipped into line at the parliamentary vote stage, allowing the proposals to proceed, is reprehensible and a sorry commentary on the behaviour of the Government at Holyrood.

Gordon Lind,

1 Colston Row, Airdrie.

Contextual targeting label: 
Finance

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