MoJ “must publish data on unrepresented defendants”

Magistrates’ courts: Harsher outcomes for unrepresented defendants

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) must publish basic information on unrepresented defendants in magistrates’ courts, a group that campaigns to improve public data has said.

The Centre for Public Data said it would be “relatively straightforward” to extract the data from the criminal justice system’s Common Platform, which was recording it.

The centre said in a briefing note that nobody knew how many unrepresented defendants appear in magistrates’ courts but estimates range from 13% to 30% and survey data suggested the number had increased since LASPO in 2013.

“Research has shown that defendants who represent themselves in court tend to experience harsher justice outcomes, find it harder to engage with court proceedings and have a negative impact on court efficiency.”

The centre said people represented themselves for a number of reasons, such as not meeting the eligibility criteria for legal aid or not knowing about their right to legal aid.

Research by the Magistrates Association had shown that 90% of magistrates felt they had a negative impact on the court process.

Unrepresented defendants were more likely to have bad experiences in court, finding it harder to submit pleas, work through case files and generally feeling underprepared.

They also faced more severe sentences, struggled with digital processes and slowed down hearings, adding to the backlog of cases.

“Courts in England and Wales are designed to be navigated by lawyers. The paperwork is complex, the language can be inscrutable and mounting the best possible defence generally requires legal expertise.”

The centre said MPs, researchers and journalists had “all repeatedly asked the government for better data about unrepresented defendants in the magistrates’ courts – both the size of the issue, and the impact it has on people and courts.”

The most common questions were about the number of defendants representing themselves, their demographic make-up, where self-representation rates were highest and the most common offences.

The centre said it was “clear why MoJ should produce this data”, which could provide insight into why the court backlog may be falling slower than expected, or why some groups faced harsher justice outcomes.

“It would answer MPs’ questions. And it’s entirely technically feasible. In short, government can take steps to improve its data on unrepresented defendants. It’s simply a question of will.”

The Centre for Public Data is funded by the Legal Education Foundation for its work to improve justice data and more generally by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, among others.

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