McHale & Co. Solicitors Blog

The Cost of Pleading Guilty

With the availability of legal aid becoming ever more limited, defendants in criminal proceedings are being faced with the choice of whether to go it alone in court or pay privately.

Regardless of your finances, there are many offences which do not even qualify for legal aid, especially those where there is no custodial penalty. This includes a host of road traffic offences.

Of course, just because you have to go to court for an offence which could result in the loss of your liberty if convicted, does not automatically mean that you will qualify for legal aid.

In the Magistrates’ Court, if you have a disposable household income of more than £22,235 then you cannot receive legal aid; in the Crown Court if it is over £37,500 then it is unlikely.

You may therefore find yourself before the courts and ineligible for public funding of your case, at risk of losing your reputation, job, house, personal life or even perhaps liberty. Which option do you take?

If pleading guilty, where the risks involved to the above are minimal, it is understandable that some would choose to represent themselves, albeit there may be unforeseen hidden consequences in the future. It may only involve one appearance at court, or even completing a form and sending it out in the post and waiting for the court’s reply.

If pleading not guilty, then a person may still choose not to pay for legal representation, but the situation becomes far more complicated; receiving and assessing the evidence in the case, being able to identify the relevant issues, deciding on which witnesses to call, dealing with applications by the prosecution, corresponding with the prosecution and the court, and of course, understanding the law!

Of course, there are those who can and do represent themselves in trials and successfully, but they fall very much within a tiny minority of defendants and are rarely encountered.

With this in mind, and confident that with legal representation you will be acquitted and your life will continue as before, you decide to pay privately. It is an expense you would rather not have to bear but at least if you win then it will all be recouped. Sadly, this is not the case.

Since January 2014, successful defendants in cases before the courts may only recover the costs of their cases at the equivalent of legal aid rates, and in the Crown Court only if they had applied for and been refused legal aid, even if they knew they would not be financially eligible.

The private rates charged tend to be considerably more than those for legal aid and so this means that if you are wrongly accused of a criminal offence and acquitted then you can still find yourself out of pocket. Perversely, this means that it can be financially cheaper to plead guilty than to actually win the case!

There have been some high profile cases in the news where defendants who were ineligible for legal aid and were acquitted at Crown Court nonetheless faced financial ruin because of this rule.

You may therefore feel it is more tempting (and cheaper) to plead guilty and get the matter resolved even though you have a defence, especially if the matter is only ‘minor’.

But the hidden potential cost of pleading guilty – the loss of reputation, damage to future career prospects, loss of driving licence, prohibition on some foreign travel or emigration, the effect on applications for insurance or loans and renting a property could well outweigh your short-term savings and justify why you should not dismiss paying privately; if you were to try your hand at decorating your house and make a mess of it then you would either live with it or pay a professional to rectify it with no real harm done.

The same cannot be said when faced with criminal proceedings.

Do not ask whether you can afford to pay privately, instead ask; can you afford to plead guilty?

At McHale & Co we are aware of the stress and anxiety that facing a criminal allegation can bring, along with the added worry of how much it will cost, which is why we offer fixed-fee options (excluding disbursements for e.g. experts) so that you can be certain about how much your case will cost at the outset. If your case is successful, we will endeavour to recover as much of your costs as possible.

Contact us now on 0161 928 3848 for a no obligation discussion or email us at roberto.lavorini@mchaleandco.co.uk

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