Hi, my name is Darren and I'm 41 years old. I was born with a visual impairment and learning disabilities. When I was 6 years old I was taken away from my family home and placed in a special needs boarding school hundreds of miles away.
All I remember for the first four years of that time is crying myself to sleep most nights. By the age of 10, you know what, I’d forgotten what family life was about. I became what you would call institutionalised.
After leaving school at 17 with no real life skills I couldn’t really cope in mainstream society. I found myself not able to hold a real job down through no fault of my own. I had no friends or family life as such. I got mixed up in the rave scene, and that's when my life started to spiral out of control as I started to take drugs. To fund my lifestyle I got involved in crime.
In 2009 I was arrested and charged with conspiracy to supply cocaine. At the time, like a lot of people, I didn't know much about the legal aid system. My solicitor from a local firm applied for it and later on we received the legal aid. My case was quite complex and many other individuals were also involved. The case relied on a lot of forensic evidence. I knew I was guilty and was pleading guilty from the start so it wasn’t a case of needing a lawyer to try and ‘get me off’. Like anyone accused of a crime, I was entitled to a lawyer who could help me put my side of the story, to explain how things happened from my point of view. Even though I was pleading guilty, the legal advice I received from my solicitor was excellent and only made possible through the legal aid system.
When I was given a two year prison sentence for a crime I fully accepted I had committed I trusted it was fair. The representation I received enabled me to explain my situation and face up to my guilt. During my time in prison it meant I had faith in the fairness of the sentence and the justice in this country. Instead of feeling angry, I left prison determined to turn my life around. I live a crime-free life now.
In fact, I currently work in the third sector supporting vulnerable adults with multiple needs. A lot of the people I work with have been in prison or through the criminal justice system and I am really worried that the next round of legal aid cuts will massively impact on the people I'm supporting. I worry that, unlike my own experience, the future legal advice will be poor and given out by unqualified, low-paid solicitors- in fact worse, not even by solicitors at all- but advisers. In my case, a complicated drugs case, that would have been disastrous. How could an inexperienced, poorly paid adviser have possibly put my legal case across convincingly? They couldn’t have. And they won’t be able to for the future ‘me’s’.
And I am really afraid of the massive implications this will have on an overgrowing prison population and the strain it will put on the probation service. I can't believe that the legal aid cuts are right. If you are rich or poor we should all receive the same legal advice. Also does this mean there is going to be an increase in volume of miscarriages of justice? Personally, I do believe so. And surely everyone would agree that locking the wrong people in jail for crimes they didn’t commit is wrong. Quite apart from the cost of a prison place (30 - 35k for one year) it just isn’t just! And I’m no accountant but I can’t believe ‘righting the wrongs’ caused by bad, penny-pinching legal aid does anything but cost the taxpayer unnecessary millions and ruin lives. The legal aid of the future won’t deliver justice and I really regret that because for me it was part of my journey to turning my life around. I have faith in justice, I don’t want to see it ruined for others.