Monday, 14 April 2014

Nigel Evans

I hope that Nigel Evans will be thrown out by the voters of Ribble Valley in 2015. This is not because of his life-style (sadly, it seems to be all too common in Westminster); certainly not because he is gay - in at least one of his previous election contests, his opponents from each of the other main parties were also gay; but because he is an unreconstructed Thatcherite. It is noticeable that the two people who most prominently leapt to his defence after his acquittal were from that wing of the Conservative party: Edwina Currie and David TC Davies.

Nor do I agree with him that historic sex abuse should not be pursued. The case against Evans may not have held up, but that against Stuart Hall did and several victims will have drawn some satisfaction from that.

But he is surely right to demand that defendants who are cleared should not be out of pocket as a result of being put on trial. As Antony Hook, an experienced criminal barrister, writes on Liberal Democrat Voice:

It is an outrage that the state should prosecute you, you are found not guilty by the jury, but then be left with the costs of your defence.

But MPs have produced this unjust situation. Less than 10 years ago, Nigel Evans would not have had to pay for his defence. He could have been represented on a legal aid certificate that would pay for solicitor and counsel. Those costs would be capped on a fixed fee basis. Counsel’s fee for the three-week trial and preparation would be thousands, not hundreds of thousands, of pounds.

Labour brought in punitive means-testing for legal aid, which the Coalition has kept.

It used to be the case that acquitted defendants who had paid privately could ask for a Defence Costs Order. This meant the state would reimburse their defence costs. Judges had a (rarely used) discretion to disallow defence costs.

Labour’s problem was that having cut back legal aid, public money was going to pay for more Defence Costs Order for innocent defendants who had paid privately. So in the end the right of the innocent defendant to get their costs back was scrapped too.

That is how we have arrived at an Orwellian situation where Nigel Evans, and thousands of defendants every year, are caused huge financial harm even if they are not guilty. They should get their costs back. It is only fair.

But the rules that have been so unjust to Nigel Evans were voted for by Parliament: brought in by Labour and left in place by the Coalition. Some of Nigel Evans’s colleagues who decry their friend’s situation voted for the very provisions that penalise him.

Nigel Evans has friends who will make sure that he is not reduced to penury. He can also rely on one of the best pension schemes around when he leaves parliament. The ordinary man in the street who is mistakenly accused, or is slandered or otherwise suffers a civil wrong for which there is no longer legal aid, is not so lucky.

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