Sunday, August 21, 2011

Legal aid eligibility and fair trial requirements

At a time when we are considering the implications of restricting the availability of legal aid, the Supreme Court of Ireland reminds us that the constitutional right to a fair trial may require legal aid to be granted, even where a defendant is not at risk of imprisonment: Joyce v DJ Brady [2011] IESC 36. O'Donnell J, for the Court, observed [13]:

" ... for a person who has never appeared in court before and who faces the possibility of conviction for theft an offence of dishonesty with all that that entails for prospects of employment, I do not think it could be considered anything other than serious.
"[14] It is worth considering what would be involved in a professional defence of the case. It would be necessary to know that the offence itself was indictable but could be tried in the District Court but only with the agreement of the accused. It would be necessary therefore to form some view as to which court would be the most desirable from this accused's point of view. If the matter was to proceed in the District Court it would be also necessary to know that an application could be made for disclosure which might inform the accused of the case which he had to meet. It might also be necessary to know the extensive law that has grown up in recent years about the significance of CCTV evidence, and more particularly, its absence. Careful consideration would have to be paid, to both the legal and factual basis upon which it could be said that the actions of the two women in the Spar shop could be attributed to the applicant. In addition to all of these steps a lawyer would have to consider what witnesses would be available for the defence. Leaving aside the statutory formula for one moment, if the sole question for a court was whether anyone would think this was the sort of case that could be fairly defended by a litigant on their own whilst suffering perhaps from that "fumbling incompetence that may occur when an accused is precipitated into the public glare and alien complexity of courtroom procedures, and is confronted with the might of a prosecution backed by the State" (State (Healy) v. Donoghue [1976] I.R. 325, 354), then there could in my view, be only one correct answer."
"[16] ... The constitutional right, from which an entitlement to legal aid for impecunious defendants was deduced is, primarily, the right to a trial in due course of law guaranteed by Article 38 of the Constitution. That is a right to a fair trial; it cannot be reduced to a right not to be deprived of liberty without legal aid. There is something fundamentally incongruous in the contention that a trial for theft would be unfair if the accused was convicted (perhaps having pleaded guilty) and sent to jail for even a day, but that a trial of the selfsame offence including the same facts and issue of law would become fair if the accused were only fined or required to do community service if convicted, even though such conviction would brand him a thief."
"[20] ... given the unpredictability of court proceedings, and the fact that the full facts may emerge if at all on a full trial, then unless the test as to whether an accused might face a risk of imprisonment were applied with considerable flexibility there could be a serious risk of confusion, error, waste of time and, not least, injustice."
If legal aid is not available to a defendant who wants legal representation but who cannot, in reality, afford to pay a lawyer, fair trial requirements may prevent a conviction. See Condon v R [2006] NZSC 62, discussed here on 24 August 2006, and other cases under the heading "Counsel" in the Index to this site.

Financial criteria limiting the availability of legal aid cannot justly be applied inflexibly. The real cost of private legal representation must be weighed against a defendant's actual disposable income. This is not to say that legal aid should be a gift, as arrangements can be made for reimbursement of state funding by the defendant on an instalments basis.