THE defence solicitor is one of the last barriers between the state and the individual.
Like healthcare (provided "free"), it is vital that when it is most needed legal representation and advice should be provided. It is acknowledges that there isn't much public, and hence political, support for legal aid. The fact that it is used sometimes to defend the apparently indefensible creates an unfortunate image of public funds being used to "get the guilty off". That may be so, but there is a phrase in business that "80% of advertising is wasted, the problem is we don't know which 80%". The difficulty in criminal justice is that we simply do not know what part is "wasted" until the trial is over, but the "not-wasted" part prevents the punishment of the innocent.
Our work involves reviewing scientific evidence in criminal cases. In other UK and international jurisdictions we receive or make copies of the lab notes and records of the prosecution. Not only does the Scottish Police Services Authority (SPSA) charge for supervision of our scientists, even looking at the notes (because it refuses to allow copies), it charges the defence, and hence the Scottish Legal Aid Board, £100 an hour for the privilege. Who is happy to pay to see the evidence against them? One small practical way in which we can save money is to encourage the Scottish Government to get the SPSA to abandon this abhorrent practice that simply moves public money from one place to another, and allow the defence copies of their notes.
The argument about legal aid should not be about spending more money, it is about spending what we have more wisely. Equality of arms should not just be a principle, the system must ensure that it is practised. We must remember that it's not all about the guilty; legal aid helps protect the innocent. What we must deal with is the question of whether we want the best criminal justice system or the cheapest. It is almost certain that the two are mutually incompatible.
Professor Allan Jamieson,
Director, The Forensic Institute,
166 Buchanan Street, Glasgow.
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