Unlike some of the other speakers here today, I am not the head of a civil rights group, I am not a leading QC or judge, I have not been the victim of an infamous miscarriage of justice.
What I am is the average person in the street, a working family man, and what happened to me could happen to anyone. Cases like mine, and people like me, are why justice is important for all.
A couple of years ago there were some kids local to where I lived causing problems with their anti social behaviour. The residents had reported one particular boy to the police a few times. The police would move him along, but he would immediately return and mock both us and the police.
One day when I stood in my doorway and asked him and his friends to quieten down, his response was to walk up my garden path and assault me.
I did what I am lawfully entitled to do and used reasonable force to defend myself. I grabbed the boy’s wrists to stop him from hitting me further, and marched him off my property and back onto the pavement. I shut my garden gate and stood there to keep him out.
My brother had called the police but I never thought that when the police arrived I would be the one taken away in handcuffs. You see, when the police turned up they spoke to the kid first and he accused me of assaulting him. It seems the best form of defence really is attack. And I don’t know why, but the police made a seemingly immediate, immovable decision that he was telling the truth, and from that point on their investigation was geared only to investigate his version of events.
I was charged with common assault. If I was convicted I could have gone to prison, I would have lost my job, I may well have struggled to find another, I would not have been able to financially support my family, I may have ended up on welfare. The effects would have spread to my children and wider family, and who knows what it would have done to my mental wellbeing. My life would have been ruined. And whilst my life may not matter to Chris Grayling, it damn well matters to me.
Prior to my experience with the criminal justice system, I had always assumed that any police investigation would be fair - that all of the evidence, whichever side it supported, would automatically be served so that the court could make a just decision. But this was not the case. The evidence presented against me was very one-sided.
I was referred to a dedicated criminal defence firm of solicitors. They would not allow the trial to go ahead without disclosure of material from the police which showed that it was my version of events which was the truthful one. However, the police simply refused to serve this material and the Crown Prosecution Service went so far as to claim that the items my solicitors requested were “not relevant”. Eventually, the court made a formal order for the disclosure of this material after my solicitor arranged a hearing to argue for its release. Ultimately, my solicitors, through their dogged determination to ensure that I received a fair trial, obtained the evidence which supported me. I was tried and I was acquitted. I am thankful that I remain a man of good character.
Sadly, it seems the police and Crown Prosecution Service cannot always be relied upon to prosecute fairly. This is, no doubt, affected by the budget cuts they themselves face. But this makes it all the more important that the defence is properly funded to make up for the deficiencies in the prosecution and to ensure that justice is done.
I doubt, had I represented myself, that I would have obtained the material which assisted me when those prosecuting me stood firm in their refusal to assist. You only realise the might and power of the state when you’re up against it.
My financial position was such that I was granted legal aid in this case. For the amount of work which my solicitors needed to do to obtain the evidence which helped me, there is simply no way I could have afforded to pay privately for my defence. Without legal aid, and without legally aided defence solicitors doing a thorough job, I could have been found guilty of something I did not do.
I am extremely concerned that the imminent cuts to defence funding will deny ordinary people like me justice. You just can’t keep cutting legal aid without impacting on defence lawyers doing their job, and legal aid lawyers are not the stereotypical “fat cats” the Ministry of Justice and media would have you believe.
These cuts amount to a denial of justice by the back door because the police and prosecution either cannot, or will not, always prosecute fairly and without a properly funded defence to provide an effective counter-balance then miscarriages of justice will happen. And when this happens to ordinary people like me, there won’t be support groups or public campaigns to highlight our cause. There will simply be quiet, everyday, injustice.
Chris Grayling says he can’t afford to fund legal aid - I say we can’t afford not to.