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Friday, 22 August 2014

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Innocence shouldn’t mean financial ruin

Former Commons deputy speaker Nigel Evans makes a good case for Legal Aid – even if he does so unwittingly.

Innocent people who have been “dragged through the courts” shouldn’t face financial ruin, he says. And he’s absolutely right.

Mr Evans, MP for the Ribble Valley has been left with a bill for £130,000. His life savings have been spent proving his innocence of alleged sex offences.

No argument there. An innocent man should shoulder no burdening penalty when he walks free from court. Neither should innocent people without a hope in hell of raising the price of decent representation be hung out to dry for want of private wealth.

His supporters among friends, parliamentary colleagues and some sections of the media make no great case for justice though. Their protests that the Crown Prosecution Service should never have brought Mr Evans’s case to court in the first place reduce justice to a bet on the favourite in a two-horse race. And God forbid that should ever come to pass.

Having been cleared of all accusations, Nigel Evans is hurting – with justification. A year of hell, under the glare of media scrutiny and grubby tittle-tattle suspicion, based on no firmer evidence than a juvenile belief in no-smoke-without-fire, Mr Evans said in interview: “I likened it to being hit by an Eddie Stobart truck every morning and several times throughout the day.”

He said he had contemplated suicide: “At the darkest, most loneliest (sic) moment you think ‘My god, there is only thing worse and that’s being accused of murder’.”

He is not the first high-profile individual to have been charged and cleared of sex offences. Others who have gone before have also spoken of their long torment before acquittal. After each one, the CPS has taken another drubbing for proceeding into court with cases uncertain to be proven. But if the CPS were to be persuaded only to prosecute cases sure to lead to conviction, what would be the point of juries? Where would justice be then... chalked on a blackboard at William Hill’s?

Sex claims against celebrities and high-profile individuals attract attention now because of what never happened to Jimmy Savile and what we are now told never happened to Liberal MP Cyril Smith.

Prosecutors then made bad calls. Convinced they’d never be able to make a case against well-known offenders and win, they backed off – with disastrous consequences. Both men took their crimes to the grave, unpunished. Their victims paid the price with lifelong torment.

There is, of course, no comparison with Nigel Evans nor those other celebrity defendants cleared of sexual wrong-doing. But are we now to ask prosecutors to start making their own calls again?

Must we rely on a justice system that retreats from the fair and public hearing accused and accusers all deserve as right?

Our justice system is imperfect. But it is the best we have and the envy of much of the rest of the world.

Reasonable doubt is tested by juries of men and women with no axes to grind, people on whom no pressure is brought to bear, the likes of you and me – who look only for the truth based on all available evidence.

Let the CPS do its job and present a case for testing. Let the accused defend himself or herself without fear of financial ruin. Let juries fulfil the role that seals – so far as is possible – the promise of justice.

And for goodness sake, let’s lose this hysterical populist sport that toys with guilt and innocence as gossip for idle moments at coffee breaks.

Have your say

If it had been me, then I'd have had some inexperienced duty solicitor defending me. If you by choice spend £130,000 of your own money, then so be it. If there are changes in the system, then it'll be to refund the wealthy, not subsidize the poor. That's the way it is, indeed always has been.

Posted by ian on 26 May 2014 at 15:13

I do worry there is a culture of who can get the wanted verdict through spending the most. It appears the CPS only wants Guilty verdicts to justify their costs. Yet those who need a sound defence and happen to be not guilty may not be able to prove their innocence.

We can see what happens in America. Innocent people pressured to plea bargain to avoid a heavier sentence due to the pressure on the public defender.

Although I don't like the idea of adding to the tax burden, perhaps the CPS should be required to pay all costs where a Not Guilty verdict is given.

Posted by M Dunne on 3 May 2014 at 19:52

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