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Lack of legal aid resources impairs forensic defence, warns lawyer

A defence lawyer warns that defendants are less equipped than prosecutors when it comes to engaging forensic experts to testify – increasing the danger of unsafe convictions.
Oct 20th 2011, 12:09 PM 367 6

AN UNDER-FUNDED legal aid scheme means that the prosecution is better resourced than defence teams and increases the risk of unsafe convictions, according to defence lawyer Peter Mullan.

Mullan, joint managing partner with Sheehan & Partners Solicitors, said that the under-resourced legal aid scheme means that defence teams do not have the means of engaging forensic experts to form part of a robust defence.

He said that continuing developments in the field of forensics mean scientific evidence is more accurate and conclusive today than ever before.

“There can be no more heinous a state crime than the wrongful conviction of an innocent person. If that wrongful conviction is based on a lack of forensic expertise and evidence that is available but unattainable, there can be little excuse,” Mullan said.

Speaking ahead of a seminar on forensic science in Dublin this evening, Mullan said that the Frank Shortt case, in which €4.5 million was awarded to Donegal publican Shortt over his wrongful conviction in 1995, also shows that savings made through the legal aid budget cuts can easily be wiped out if innocent people go to prison.

Shortt’s award is the equivalent of about 10 per cent of the overall legal aid budget, Mullan said.

“This is the risk that is being run every day in our courtrooms,” he said. “Miscarriages of justice can and will result because of the emphasis on cut price over equality.”

The Legal Aid Board said earlier this month that it was experiencing a surge in applications for its civil services. The board says the number of people applying for civil legal aid rose by over a fifth last year as the economic situation “had a very real and tangible impact” on its operating environment.

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