Yesterday, there were two stark reminders of why legal aid is so important. First, a demonstration took place outside Parliament against the proposed cuts to legal aid, reminding us of the vital role that legal aid plays in preventing and redressing miscarriages of justice. Second, the Court of Appeal handed down its reasons for upholding the Government's decision to withhold financial aid from Lindsay Sandiford, a British woman who is facing the death penalty in Indonesia on drug-smuggling charges. The Government's inaction in this case, and the Court's decision, has left it to the public to raise the money required for Mrs Sandiford's legal costs via a JustGiving website. David Cameron would probably call this the "Big Society" in action. It isn't. It's the public once again digging deep in their pockets to help one of their own when the state has (metaphorically, at least) hung them out to dry.
The Foreign Office's reasons for not offering financial aid to Mrs Sandiford are straightforward: if we were to pay for her legal representation, this will open the floodgates to claims from other British nationals abroad who are also facing punishments that are prohibited under UK law. In a time of austerity, we simply cannot afford to do this. Indeed, if we are cutting legal aid to people caught up in the criminal justice system at home, we cannot feasibly offer legal aid to those abroad. The Court of Appeal agreed, saying that the financing of individual legal costs abroad is a discretionary matter for the government, and that neither domestic nor European law compels the UK to assist those who it does not "exercise authority" over. The Government's blanket policy of not offering financial assistance in any case, the Court said, is not irrational.
The Court of Appeal's decision is disappointing, and fails to grasp the extent of the UK's hypocrisy and complicity in this case. The charge of hypocrisy stems from the fact that the UK is often quick to condemn countries for imposing the death penalty, with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office even having an official strategy for promoting the global abolition of the death penalty, especially for drug offences. It is shocking that the government has refused to put its money where its mouth is. The UK also knows all too well about the inequities in the administration of capital punishment, with ample evidence to show that the death penalty is generally imposed on those who cannot afford proper legal representation. And it is here that the charge of complicity arises. The Government knows that the chances of being executed greatly increase when a person does not have properly funded legal assistance. It follows that, by refusing to offer financial aid, the Government knowingly exposed Lindsay Sandiford to a greater risk of the death penalty being carried out.
By knowingly exposing Mrs Sandiford to a greater risk of the death penalty, the UK is arguably violating its obligations under international law. International law prohibits states from aiding, through actions or omissions, the commission of human rights abuses elsewhere. It is a human rights abuse to impose the death penalty for non-fatal offences - the UN confirmed this as long ago as 1993 when it chastised Iran for imposing the death penalty for crimes that do not result in the loss of life. By failing to take positive steps to prevent Indonesia from executing a British national for drug offences, the UK is knowingly, if not directly, facilitating or making it easier for Indonesia to commit a violation of international law.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time that the Government has acquiesced in the use of the death penalty for drug offences. There is considerable evidence to show that the UK has provided countries like Iran with the money and resources needed to track those involved in drug trafficking, and that these arrests often result in death sentences being meted out. Even the Home Affairs Committee has called on the government to review its policy of giving aid to countries that impose the death penalty for drug offences.
It is shameful that the Government is not taking all the steps that it can to prevent a British national from being executed for drug offences, and it will be yet another stain on our moral and legal reputation worldwide if Mrs Sandiford is executed following the Government's inaction. After all, Mrs Sandiford was only asking for £8000 - which is £2000 less than the Foreign Office paid last year for "essential maintenance" on a stuffed anaconda in Whitehall. The judiciary, which is usually quick to protect the human rights of Britons, has also spectacularly failed in its duty on this occasion.
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