There has been a ‘significant’ rise in the number of defendants representing themselves in criminal courts, research has revealed.
The report, Justice denied? The experience of unrepresented defendants in the criminal courts, from charity Transform Justice, said that around 6% of defendants are unrepresented in the Crown court.
While there are no official figures for the number in the magistrates’ courts, magistrates and district judges interviewed had differing estimates of the proportion of unrepresented defendants, ranging from 15% to 40% for non-traffic cases, and all felt that numbers had recently increased.
The report said that the lack of data meant that unrepresented defendants in the magistrates’ courts are ‘invisible’ in policy terms, but had ‘an immense’ impact on court staff, judges and advocates.
Judges and lawyers suggested that unrepresented defendants are at a ‘disadvantage’ and one magistrate said ‘luck plays its part’ in the outcome, depending on the Bench and lawyers who dealt with them.
Respondents said that unrepresented defendants did not understand what they were charged with and pleaded guilty when they would have been advised not to.
Those accused often failed to call the right witnesses to back up their defence, or to call a prosecution witness to challenge their evidence, and their cross examination sometimes led to abuse of witnesses.
A few respondents felt that unrepresented defendants got relatively lenient sentences, because judges or juries felt sorry for them, but most advocates thought they got tougher sentences because they had ‘no idea how to mitigate’.
Transform Justice director Penelope Gibbs said: ‘Our system is not fit for DIY lawyers. We either need to provide people with legal advice or redesign the system to make it simpler.’
Meanwhile,speaking to BBC Radio 4’s consumer programme You and Yours, Bar Chairman Chantal-Aimée Doerries QC reiterated the warning that consumers need to be protected from ‘unregulated, uninsured and untrained’ McKenzie Friends who charge fees to help people in court.