This is the real life account of a woman named Jackie and her experience as a first time ‘offender’.
Jackie is bipolar and recovering from thyroid cancer. Jackie unfortunately suffers poor memory, but can recall most facts of her story, which she and I both wish to share with you. Jackie is not a client of the firm I work for, but someone who I began talking to on Twitter, following the ‘Save UK Justice’ campaign. Jackie has had no dealings with legal aid, and is in full support of the campaign and against the government’s proposals.
Jackie crashed her car into a skip in August 2010. 3 fire engines attended to remove the roof to lift her out plus two police cars. As you can tell, it was a serious crash. Jackie was in and out of consciousness and has never been able to recall the four hours prior to the crash. She does recall the female police officer asking whether I had been drinking “because the car stinks of drink”, and Jackie replied yes.
After examination and x-rays in A&E, the doctor said Jackie was fit to give blood & she consented. The two police officers who attended hospital were friendly and comforting. The male officer asked whether she could remember anything about the skip and she said ‘it was big and yellow’. However, the officer told her it was in fact blue.
She thinks a superior officer attended A&E to bail her, but she doesn’t recall signing anything. She also does not recall being given the blood results or the duplicate blood phial, which she did not have independently analysed.
She was lucky to only sustain minor cuts and bruising.
At the police station for the first time
Jackie attended the Police Station a couple of weeks later. Her blood alcohol was, according to police reports, 1.5 times over the limit and she was bailed for court in October 2010. Unfortunately, Jackie does not recall whether or not she was asked if she wanted a solicitor at the station, but the sergeant was at pains to advise her that she could have a female officer if she was experiencing any “women’s issues”! Jackie also said that if she was offered a solicitor, she may have declined as she was admitting her guilt. She remembers being fingerprinted, photographed and orally swabbed for DNA.
Why you should have a solicitor
It is absolutely imperative that everyone has a solicitor, regardless as to whether you are admitting your guilt or not.
Everyone is entitled to free legal advice, solicitors are completely independent of the police.
If you are arrested, would you be satisfied that, without seeing proof from the police, they have the evidence (or enough of it) for you to admit it? You could easily be making things worse but adding details that they wouldn’t otherwise know. By not having that legal representation, you may be filling in the gaps for the prosecution, making things worse for yourself. You won’t know whether there are any gaps unless you ask for a solicitor. A solicitor’s job is to speak to the police before any interview and then tell you what evidence they have against you so there are no surprises in your interview. By admitting guilt, you might also be adding aggravating features that the police wouldn’t otherwise know.
Even a full admission in interview is better put forward by a solicitor in a prepared statement limiting the further trouble you would land yourself in. Talking freely in your interview will inevitably harm you, if you blindly admit to something without knowing, in advance of what the police know or do not know.
Even if you are going to “just admit everything”, after you are then charged and required to go to court to face the prosecution (unless the matter is dealt with by way of out of course disposal, such as a fixed penalty notice). A police officer is then free to write up his or her interpretation of what you said in interview. If you do not have a solicitor there, on your side, it is hard for any solicitor to later argue that you said something different to what the police say happened.
After being charged at the police station, Jackie asked the custody sergeant whether she needed to find a solicitor to represent her at court and he told her that it was not necessary but that she could ask the court duty solicitor to represent her.
Jackie attended Lordship Lane Magistrates Court in October 2010 clutching a bundle of police reports and statements. She had not arranged for a solicitor to represent her, due to what the custody sergeant had told her. Everyone seemed to know what to do and where to go except her. She felt quite lost, she was terrified and felt very alone. She had completely forgotten that she could ask to speak to a duty solicitor. A nice man (a probation officer) showed her where to ‘check in’, and the duty solicitor introduced herself, asking if she could help as she “looked a bit lost”. She was very appreciative of the duty solicitor as she had talked her through the proceedings. Jackie was given a form, and was not aware she had to declare income, outgoings and savings. Jackie said that she did not know what harm failure to provide the financial information would have done. Possibly irritated the magistrates and increased my fine or held up proceedings while I supplied the information under stress.
Jackie watched in the public gallery and waited for her case to be called. She pleaded guilty to driving over the limit. The magistrate queried the amount she spent on alcohol monthly – due to her illegible scrawl it looked like she had declared it to be £700pm! The duty solicitor mitigated on behalf and she was sentenced the same day.
Why you should have a solicitor for court proceedings, regardless of plea
Jackie felt that a solicitor’s presence was reassuring, gave her support and knew that her interest was being cared for. Jackie felt it was a frightening and intimidating environment and experience.
A solicitor will speak to the Court, Magistrates or Judge and Prosecution on your behalf. They will advise on plea, type of offence, the law and your case’s venue. All of which are things that someone representing themselves may not have thought about, or may feel, for example, unable to approach a prosecutor, particularly if they remain seated at the front of the Court room.
A solicitor will consider Jackie’s mental health condition and whether or not this had any impact on her understanding of proceedings. A solicitor would be able to recognise mental health issues and may even be able to obtain a report to assist proceedings. As Jackie has said, it is a very frightening and lonely experience. Jackie was involved in a serious accident, then had to attend police station and court alone. I should imagine she was under a great deal of stress. It is clear to see why she felt that a solicitor was important to her.
Jackie’s is entitled to free legal advice from the Court duty solicitor for one hearing only. If Jackie had have contested the matter and a second hearing was listed, she would have had to arrange for legal aid forms to be submitted, for a solicitor to represent her, and fight her case. It also also important to choose a law firm who you can trust and who you know will do their best or you.
Again, if contesting, having a solicitor from the very start – at the police station – is so important!
Under the current government proposals, you will be allocated a solicitor at the police station. If Jackie was ever arrested again (it can happen to anyone!), she will have to explain her circumstances to another solicitor, she may have to ask them to obtain another report at extra cost to the taxpayer. If she was able to choose a firm she knew, and knew her, this would not happen.
To find out more about these disastrous proposals, you can read my other posts on the blog. Please sign the petition to force a debate in parliament: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/48628
Gemma Blythe is a Caseworker at Kent Defence Solicitors, a leading criminal law firm in South East Kent. Kent Defence can be contacted on 01843 227631.