updated on 11 May 2018
The full version of an internal Ministry of Justice report detailing the concerns of judges about people forced to represent themselves in court due to legal aid cuts has been leaked, despite the government’s attempts to conceal its existence. The government has now been reported to the Information Commissioner for an alleged breach of freedom of information law.
A freedom of information request by BuzzFeed News initially forced the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to release a six-page summary of the report, which examined the impact of legal aid cuts introduced in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 and included testimonies from 15 judges and six prosecutors.
When journalists made a further freedom of information request for the rest of the report, the government repeatedly insisted that the summary that had been released was the report in its entirety, but the rest of the 36-page document – which is marked “Do not quote publicly” – has now been leaked.
The paper provides a stark insight into the human cost of the legal aid cuts and the government’s austerity programme, with judges expressing serious concerns about the impact of people facing criminal charges without representation on the justice system, victims of crime and defendants.
More than half the judges interviewed felt that self-representing defendants did not properly understand the process, particularly the difference that an early guilty plea makes to sentencing. Several judges said that unrepresented defendants were typically offered no support at all. “Some of them just sit there like a rabbit in the headlights and haven’t got a clue what’s going on,” reads one quote.
Judges also warned that forcing people to go without lawyers in hearings makes the process take up more court time, meaning that legal aid cuts end up costing the system more in the long term.
Another judge expressed deep misgivings at the appropriateness of witnesses being questioned by defendants in court, which can be highly traumatic for witnesses and victims.
The report also illustrated the gulf between the Ministry of Justice’s predictions regarding the affects of the cuts to legal aid and the reality on the ground.
The MoJ was bullish in its repeated denials to journalists that there was a full version of the report. One email from a press officer said: “We will be very disappointed if you allude to us being in any way dishonest in your article.” The MoJ has so far declined to comment on the leaked full version of the report.
Several parties have reported the government’s alleged cover-up to the Information Commissioner, while lawyers across the profession have expressed horror at the government's failure to disclose the report’s findings.