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A system in need of overhaul

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THE Island's Bâtonnier, Advocate Tony Olsen, who plays a leading role in overseeing the Jersey legal profession, has been fiercely critical of the way in which legal aid is administered.

Some might see this as an attempt to make life even more comfortable for lawyers than it already is, but, in reality, Advocate Olsen, who was speaking at yesterday's Assise d'Heritage, was drawing attention to a problem which has long been recognised as a flaw in our system.

As matters stand, much legal aid is provided pro bono publico by lawyers with fewer than 15 years' service. In view of the very large sums of money made by so many members of the Jersey legal profession, some Islanders will say that providing free representation is fair enough, citing the principle that those who receive great rewards should be willing to make commensurate sacrifices.

There are, however, serious flaws in this line of reasoning. To begin with, similar impositions do not apply to other lucrative professions – such as banking. Secondly, there must be occasions when a lawyer who is giving his or her services free does a job for a legal aid client which, to be frank, is not up to par.

All the evidence suggests that junior lawyers take their legal aid commitments very seriously indeed – even if they resent them – but it must be exceedingly difficult to devote maximum attention to a petty Magistrate's Court case if your more routine work involves dealing with international high finance or litigation.

But there is a further problem with the current legal aid regime. In some cases – such as the Curtis Warren drugs trial – defence costs are publicly funded. Quite why this anomaly exists is almost anyone's guess because there are no guidelines to indicate which cases should receive special treatment.

As Advocate Olsen has said, it is indeed high time that these anomalies and inconsistencies were abolished and replaced by a coherent system. As well as being unsatisfactory from the point of view of legal practices, individual lawyers and defendants, the present arrangements might not comply with the Human Rights Law as enacted in this Island.

Revising the system might be of incidental benefit to lawyers, but it would have an even more favourable impact on the principle of equal justice for all members of the community and, quite possibly, on the quality of representation that legal aid clients might expect.

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