Friday, 3 April 2009

Back to the 80s

'Life on Mars' tells the story of Sam Tyler, a detective transported back in time to 1973. The imaginative TV series which has since been remade in the US portrays Tyler’s shock at the 'beat ‘em up, ask questions later' approach of 70s policing. Of course the series is fictional, but nonetheless there were serious flaws in policing methods in this period, especially in the questioning of suspects in police stations which led to many miscarriages of justice. The Guildford Four and Birmingham Six were perhaps the most notorious cases in which 'confessions' extracted in police stations by dubious means were used to convict innocent men. The government is now hinting that due to a looming budget crisis in the legal aid system it is going to water down the reforms that were brought in by the Conservatives in the mid-80s to prevent the abuse of police powers.

Last month, the government published its plans for tendering police station and magistrates' court work, a move much criticised by practitioners. By its own admission, the Legal Services Commission (LSC), which administers legal aid, says that the tendering of the services is 'not about saving money'. As well as begging the question, 'why bother then?', the fact that the tenders are unlikely to save any cash is deeply concerning for the future of civil liberties as the government looks set to resort to desperate measures to control the legal aid budget.

In a document outlining the move to tenders the LSC admitted that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) needed to find £1 billion in cuts from its £10 billion budget and had been considering cut backs in police station work as a contribution to this. It appears that the proposal under serious consideration at the MoJ is to reduce legal advice in police stations to telephone advice for all but the most serious offences such as rape, murder or terrorism. Everyone else accused of a crime will have to pay if they want to see a solicitor.

It is argued by some that civil liberties can be adequately protected by recording on camera all interviews and all a suspect's movements in a police station. LAG believes they would not be protected as in our adversarial legal system the trial effectively starts in a police station and to ensure a fair trial independent representation is essential. What is in danger of happening is the right to legal advice in the police station being undermined as a panic move to save cash and this risks turning the civil liberties clock back to the mid-80s with no public debate.

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