The government tried to block publication of research revealing judges’ concerns about people representing themselves in court

updated on 04 May 2018

The Ministry of Justice tried to stop the publication of research that expressed crown court judges’ misgivings about the number of people representing themselves in criminal cases due to cuts to legal aid.

The research – commissioned by the government in 2015 to review the impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 – included interviews with 15 judges and six prosecutors, who expressed concern that cuts introduced by the Act were forcing more people to go unrepresented in court.

As Emily Dugan has reported for BuzzFeed News, the findings appeared to criticise the impact of government policy, but were buried for two years. The Ministry of Justice rejected Buzzfeed News’s requests to see the research under the Freedom of Information Act in 2017, but last week released an unpublished summary of the research following an appeal to the information commissioner.

The summary revealed that some of the judges and prosecutors felt that those who appeared in court without a lawyer were more likely to be found guilty, while many defendants forced to represent themselves had a “limited understanding” of court proceedings.

The research also included concerns that unrepresented litigants made hearings slower, as well as concerns about the impact on witnesses who are cross-examined by the accused.

The summary paper highlights serious concerns about the fairness of the justice system where litigants in person are involved. It states: “Unrepresented defendants were seen as having varied but limited understanding of the court process by the majority of interviewees. Some CPS interviewees went further by highlighting issues such as unrepresented defendants not understanding how to present evidence about their case at hearings, how to prepare defence statements, or how to ask questions in court.”