A Man Who Represents Himself Has a Fool for a Client

Craig MacKenzie
Craig MacKenzie

Published: June 3rd, 2024

4 mins read

Abraham Lincoln said: “A man who represents himself has a fool for a client.”  It was as true then as it is now.  People charged with criminal offences often consider whether they need a lawyer in court, even when legal aid is freely available.  Defendants who may have to pay for representation sometimes 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.  In one (protest) case, the prosecutor was reluctant to go through the hassle of printing out documents for each defendant.

Defendants struggled to understand the nature of the process 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 tried 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 court's system highlighted by court watchers - 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 is 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.

Our private criminal defence solicitors act in thousands of cases yearly, often in the most serious and most high-profile cases before the Courts. The firm has significant resources and uses the latest technology to prepare cases.  Our private criminal defence team will treat you and your case with integrity, sensitivity, and a 'laser focus' towards obtaining a successful outcome for you from the moment of instruction.

Contact Craig MacKenzie, Partner and head of our High Profile & Private Crime Division.

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