Acquitted defendants are being left thousands of pounds out of pocket or tempted to plead guilty due to ‘unjust’ limits on claiming legal costs.
The report, Innocent But Broke – Rough Justice?, published by criminal justice charity Transform Justice, called for a change to the law, introduced in 2012, that limited to legal aid rates the amount that privately paying defendants who were acquitted could recoup from the state.
It highlighted the cases of former deputy speaker Nigel Evans, who was left with a £130,000 bill after being cleared of rape, and former deputy editor of the News of the World Neil Wallis, who considered pleading guilty to the conspiracy charges he was cleared of, in order to reduce his legal costs.
The report states: ‘Austerity demands cuts but many perceive this particular change to be against both justice and human rights, given that it has led innocent people to be financially ruined and is a strong incentive to plead guilty.’
Transform Justice called for the reinstatement of a system under which ‘reasonable’ costs are reimbursed to defendants who are acquitted or where the prosecution is withdrawn. It suggested this could be achieved through an online application and a transparent menu of costs that may be reimbursed, set at fixed rates depending on the nature of the case.
It also recommended reducing the number of unsuccessful prosecutions and making criminal legal expenses insurance more popular and more effective.
Charity director, Penelope Gibbs, said: ‘It is shocking that, on being acquitted, ordinary people are having to raid their life savings or sell their homes to meet legal bills.’
A Ministry of Justice spokesman noted that nine out of ten Crown Court defendants received legal aid, saying: ‘It is important to make sure we spend taxpayers’ money as efficiently as possible.’