People charged with criminal offences often consider whether they really need a lawyer in court, even in circumstances where legal aid is freely available. Defendants who may have to pay for representation will also often proceed without legal advice, but is it a good idea?

In a recent research project that involved observing magistrates’ courts over six months, the researchers (‘courtwatchers’) found that more than one in five defendants are unrepresented at trial (21%), often to their disadvantage. There were multiple reports of defendants not receiving papers for hearings in advance and in one (protest) case the prosecutor was apparently reluctant to go through the hassle of having to print out documents for each defendant.

Defendants struggled to understand the nature of the process that they had become embroiled in, a confusion shared by the court watchers.

A significant minority of defendants appeared without a lawyer.

Courtwatchers felt that unrepresented defendants were severely disadvantaged by their lack of legal advice, even though court staff and judges made efforts to explain things.

Defendants who needed interpreters were some of the worst served by the court. And courtwatchers were alarmed to see hearings going ahead despite some defendants being clearly unwell.

A few courtwatchers picked up on inconsistencies in how defendants were dealt with which they saw as evidence of racial bias.

The researchers conclude:

‘The fundamental flaw in our courts system highlighted by courtwatchers – that many defendants don’t know what’s happening in the court and so can’t meaningfully participate in the process – needs urgent action. We need simpler court proceedings so the process is intelligible to a layperson, and legal aid available for a wider range of circumstances. At the very least, we recommend introducing a support service for defendants, available in every magistrates’ court.’

We would never advise that a person conduct their own defence. Legal aid is available in many cases, and fees for private representation are lower than many people think.

Do not hesitate to contact us. We can tell you whether you are eligible for legal aid and, if not, outline the alternative options available to you.


How can we help?

We ensure we keep up to date with any changes in legislation and case law so that we are always best placed to advise you properly. If you would like to discuss any aspect of your case, please contact our team of criminal defence specialists on: 01376 511819