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We should not start counting cost of fair trial

Published 29/09/2015

The campaign against spending large sums of money on legal aid for people standing trial for serious criminal offences is an attack on the most fundamental principals of English Law, fought for and jealously safeguarded over almost a thousand years - namely the right to a fair trial and to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.

You cite recent high-profile cases, where large sums of money were spent on the defence of people subsequently convicted of the most heinous crimes (News, September 25).

But to decide in advance of a trial whether the defendant is guilty or not, and thereby deciding whether or not they deserve legal aid, is nothing more or less than the justice of the lynch mob and the kangaroo court.

English Law is an adversarial system, whereby the prosecution and defence each present their evidence to the court. To deny the defendant the means to defend himself, or herself, adequately against all the resources ranged against him, must inevitably skew the proceedings against a fair trial.

Newspaper files are full of reports of serious miscarriages of justice, where new evidence has come to light, often long after the original trial, and people have been released from prison after many years for crimes they did not commit. Sometimes, justice is too late for those who die in prison, locked up for a crime they did not commit.

Most often, these injustices resulted from a failure by an inadequate defence to expose the flaws in the prosecution case.

Most of us, but especially the more vulnerable members of our society, lack the means to defend ourselves at all and, if people are denied the funds, through Legal Aid, to defend themselves adequately in a criminal trial, we will end up with a legal system where only the richest will be able to defend themselves in court and the rest of us will be exposed to the possibility of trial and conviction on the flimsiest of evidence, or US-style plea-bargaining.

By all means, look to savings in the justice system by making it more efficient, but it is my belief that the right to a fair trial is absolute - regardless of cost.

BRIAN CONNOLLY

Craigavon, Co Armagh

Belfast Telegraph

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