Motorists who choose to fight driving offences in court could find themselves up to £7,000 out of pocket after Conservatives reneged on a pledge to reimburse the full cost of successful challenges.
By David Millward
11:04PM BST 25 Sep 2011
Nearly 100,000 drivers a year are wrongly charged with offences such as speeding and drink-driving and go on to be acquitted in court. However, they will become victims of legal aid reforms introduced by Kenneth Clarke, the Justice Secretary. Despite the Coalition’s claim to have ended the war on the motorist, it faced claims that it is looking to cut its own legal bill at drivers’ personal expense. Edmund King, the president of the AA, said: “If these changes are implemented they will encourage some innocent drivers to plead guilty as they can’t afford to lose a court case. You can’t put a price on justice.”
Shortly before leaving office, Labour imposed a cap on repayment of legal costs of £60 an hour. At the time, Dominic Grieve, who is now Attorney General, told protesters: “I entirely share your concern about these proposals and do not believe it is right that the defendant should only receive a fraction of their legal costs back from central funds if they are acquitted.
“While there may be an argument for preventing a claim for grossly excessive costs, the Government’s proposals appear to me to be unfair and wrong.”
However, it has emerged the Coalition is to reinstate the cap to cut its legal aid bill. Successfully contesting a drink-driving charge can cost between £5,000 and £10,000, but under the new regulations the motorist could have to pay as much as £7,000 from their own pocket. The cost of defending a speeding case can reach at least £2,000, but an acquitted driver would be reimbursed £600.
A spokesman for the Law Society said: “If the state has taken criminal proceedings against an individual, and in successfully defending the case the individual has incurred legal costs, it is not fair that they incur liability for the costs of their defence.” Jeanette Miller, the president of the Association of Motor Offence Lawyers said: “These proposals will simply serve to penalise motorists who successfully challenge prosecutions that in many cases are without merit at the outset, or prevent those less well off from making challenges in the first place.”
Mr King added: “If the state feels the need to prosecute an individual, that individual should have the right to reasonable compensation if the state’s case is invalid. We do not advocate more cases to be fought on technicalities or loopholes, but we do feel that those drivers who are innocent should not lose out.”
A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice defended the move. “Taxpayers should not foot bills that are more expensive than they need to be.
“We will continue to reimburse the reasonable costs of people who prove their innocence, but if individuals choose to use a lawyer charging higher fees than reasonable they should fund the extra cost themselves.”