‘It is wholly unsatisfactory that the system conspires against a vulnerable individual like this,’ Worcester court told.
A judge who sentenced a “fragile and vulnerable” woman to five-and-a-half months in jail for begging has expressed alarm that no lawyer could be found to represent her because of problems over legal aid.
District judge Philip Mackenzie jailed Marie Baker, 38, at Worcester county court for repeatedly breaching an anti-social behaviour injunction aimed at preventing her accosting people in the town’s streets and in nearby Malvern.
Means-tested legal aid is available for defendants in criminal cases. But it is more difficult to secure in cases involving failure to comply with a court order, even though such offences can result in jail sentences.
“I am disturbed and concerned that Ms Baker attends before me today without the assistance of any public funding or a solicitor,” Mackenzie’s judgment explained.
“I am particularly concerned about that because, on any view, Ms Baker is … a fragile and vulnerable individual and that makes it all the more regrettable that she has not got legal assistance.”
The judge decided that she could have a fair hearing without legal advice, but pointed out it was not her fault that she had been left unrepresented.
He added: “Three or four years ago, the president of the family division [Sir James Munby] made it clear that legal aid in these sort of cases, though it is for a civil contempt, is criminal legal aid.
“That has caused some difficulty, because of the way legal aid works with solicitors getting fragmented franchises for dealing with specific types of work.
“This court has experienced, on more than one occasion, great difficulties in getting a solicitor who is prepared to deal with criminal legal aid for a committal in breach of Housing Act injunctions. It has proved somewhat difficult.”
He added: “It proved an impossible position for [another judge] last September and it has proved impossible now to secure a solicitor for Ms Baker, despite efforts taken by the claimant and by the court and Ms Baker’s own efforts.