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Legal aid reforms impact fieldsports

The Ministry of Justice has released a consultation on its proposals to reform legal aid, with a consultation period of just six weeks. The proposals mean that those relying on legal aid will be denied access to an experienced solicitor who has specialist knowledge of firearms laws or, for example, the Hunting Act. Instead, defendants will be allocated a solicitor in the police station by either their date of birth or their surname. Defendants will not be allowed to change solicitors except in exceptional circumstances.

It is expected that the number of firms with a legal aid franchise will drop from 1,600 to fewer than 400, with many small countryside solicitors being badly affected. Legal aid will be contracted out to companies such as G4S, Tesco and Eddie Stobart. The firms will also be paid a fixed fee for each case, meaning that they will have a financial incentive if the defendant pleads guilty.

Peter Glenser, a barrister with expertise in firearms law, told Shooting Times: “These proposals will fatally damage access to specialist legal aid lawyers who know their subject. They will mean the end of the rural solicitors’ practice, and for shooters, that is an absolute disaster. Firearms law is specialist and complicated, and the penalties for getting it wrong are draconian — in some cases, a five-year mandatory minimum sentence. The changes proposed by the Ministry of Justice will encourage “pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap” supermarket law firms to make their clients plead guilty.

“Let’s take an example: a stalker is arrested for armed trespass. He has every right to be where he is doing what he is doing, but the policeman is suspicious, so he is taken into custody. His house is searched, an old air rifle found and it is seized, along with all of his other firearms. They are all sent by the police to be examined, but the air rifle is not looked at for a few weeks and is stored in a cupboard, where it’s knocked about a bit. When the police expert examines it, it is found to be just over 12ft/lb, so it’s a Section 1 firearm. The offence is one of strict liability — it’s no defence to say that the stalker didn’t know it was over-powered, so he is charged with possession of a firearm without a certificate. Will the supermarket firm have it looked at by its own expert, who may well say that the police can’t prove it was over-powered when it was in his possession as opposed to going wrong after it was chucked in the back of a police car? In such a case, no offence has been committed.

The rest of this article appears in the 8th May issue of Shooting Times.

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