Low wage earners 'on their own'

DEFENDANTS are being forced to represent themselves in court after Legal Aid Queensland introduced belt-tightening measures that make it harder for low-income earners to get representation.

Earlier this year Legal Aid changed its funding criteria so only people at risk of being sentenced to a lengthy jail term would be granted funding.

Maryborough solicitor Travis George predicted then the changes would have serious consequences for defendants and the system.

“It is becoming more and more difficult for people to be granted Legal Aid,” Mr George said.

“The courts will become clogged with self-represented litigants or worse, people will be entering a plea of guilty to charges they are innocent of because of the lack of legal advice when the Legal Aid office will not fund people and they simply can't afford private representation.”

Mr George said the tightening of Legal Aid's purse-strings has come at a time when drastic changes had been introduced to the court system.

The changes remove the rights of some defendants to have a committal hearing or the right to cross-examine witnesses during a committal.

“The amendments to the criminal law remove so many of the rights of persons accused with a crime,” Mr George said.

The recent case of Monique Clubb, heard in Hervey Bay Magistrates Court this month, was an example of the importance of committal proceedings.

Solicitor Trinity McGarvie successfully applied for bail for Ms Clubb after it was discovered the police had charged the 23-year-old with the wrong offence.

Ms Clubb had spent two months in custody.

“If the committal had not been allowed to go ahead — which may have occurred under the new amendments — then this lady would have remained stuck in custody without rights or liberty,” Mr George said.

“A court's role more important than to punish the guilty is to protect the innocent.

“If the rights of accused persons continue to be taken away then there will exist a power imbalance between citizens and the police, too much in favour of the police.”

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