Case for defence falls victim to bottom line

One of the few tangible benefits of British colonialism was that it bequeathed the countries that later became the Commonwealth a strong and independent justice system.

So it is ironic that the British Government is now moving to dismantle one of its key elements: the right of defendants to fair, independent representation.

The introduction of public defenders, through the Government's proposed Criminal Defence Service, is an example of political cowardice by the Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine and his department.

While Lord Irvine spent last week spilling details of his personal life to The Sun in a bid to revamp his image and sell the Government's legal policy, little was being said openly about the concept of public defenders.

LCD officials are even briefing the national and specialist legal media separately on the proposals. This is because public defenders are being brought in, not to improve the justice system, but to appease the Treasury by cutting costs.

A senior US attorney who was consulted by the British Government over introducing public defenders told The Lawyer: "It looks like it was budget driven, rather than driven by a concern that the quality of justice was somehow lacking and being eroded."

Not only will public defenders add nothing to British justice, their introduction will seriously undermine it.

The public defender system in the US is underfunded and staffed by inexperienced lawyers with heavy caseloads who do not have time to fight vigorously for a defendant.

Yes, criminal defence costs are rising and they must be kept in check. But if the Government cannot even be trusted to adequately fund or run a Crown Prosecution Service, it is hardly going to supply enough resources for a Criminal Defence Service.

The Government has a wider responsibility to ensure that criminal defendants, often the poorest and most powerless in society, get a lawyer who does not want to plea bargain or leave the office at 5.30pm. Any Criminal Defence Service must improve Britain's justice system for criminal defendants, and not just for Government accountants.