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What if YOU need legal aid?

Some time around dawn on April 11, 2011, a cyclist, Michael Caulfield, died following a collision with a truck on the Ormeau Bridge in south Belfast.

This was a terrible tragedy for both the Caulfield family and for James Thompson, the lorry driver involved.

Mr Caulfield's widow and Mr Thompson have both spoken of the impact that the accident has had on all their lives.

Mr Thompson was accused by the police of careless driving causing death and he faced a substantial risk of a prison sentence.

The decision by the court to acquit Mr Thompson of causing death by careless driving was by no means an inevitability.

It came about through the examination and testing of technical and legal issues by his barrister.

It is the sort of case which highlights the circumstances under which members of society can find themselves unexpectedly embroiled with the justice system and where fair treatment is dependent on good legal representation.

Much has been written recently about spiralling legal costs and an inaccurate impression is created that high legal costs mean over-generous lawyers' fees.

The truth, however, is quite different.

Criminal legal aid, which supports those without means to defend themselves, has been reduced to such an extent that it barely comes near the amount spent by the Public Prosecution Service, which spent £35m last year on taking cases to court – not including what is paid out to police officers working on those cases.

The gap between how much is spent by the state on prosecution and what is available to citizens to defend themselves is both unfair and unjust.

The cuts in criminal legal aid may not gain much sympathy with taxpayers; that is until there is a realisation that often it is those members of society who least expect it who find themselves in need of the services of a criminal barrister.

Belfast Telegraph