From the archive: April 25, 1903
No opinion in matters connected with the criminal law is more worthy of attention than that of Sir Harry Poland, but his letter to the Times of the 21st of April on the Poor Prisoners' Defence Bill is hardly convincing.
He says the Bill is "absolutely unworkable"; but he gives no reasons for this opinion, except the difficulty of working it in London arising from the great number of prisoners tried at the Old Bailey and the sessions.
We cannot agree with Sir H. Poland that the Bill is unworkable. As we have pointed out before, there are defects in the machinery supplied by the Bill for carrying out its main object, but these defects ought to be capable of remedy without great difficulty.
Outside London we believe the system proposed by the Bill for the defence of poor prisoners could be carried out without the least difficulty. At all events, all difficulties are capable of easily being conquered if members of the legal profession of both branches shew any real desire to conquer them.
In London, no doubt, the difficulties would be great, but we cannot think they are insuperable. If the will is present, the means will soon be found. There are, no doubt, hundreds of young solicitors in London who are not overburdened with business and who have plenty of time to undertake the defence of the poor. We do not believe that from amongst these hundreds there will be found wanting a sufficient number to carry out the intention of the Bill.
As for the bar, of these there can be no doubt. Quite apart from any higher motives, the younger members of the bar will be immensely benefited by the passing of the Bill. It will give many a young barrister a chance of opening his mouth in court who otherwise might have to wait a long time before gaining an audience.
No one reading Sir H. Poland's letter can avoid coming to the conclusion that it is quite unnecessary for any prisoner to be defended. "The guilty," he says, "have now nothing to complain of; and the innocent very rarely suffer any injustice." But surely if the innocent ever suffer injustice it is our duty to make such cases as rare as possible. Again, he says: "The true protection for poor innocent prisoners is to take care that prosecutions are conducted with a view, not to get a conviction, but to get the truth. This is always the case with public prosecutions."
Now, it is well known that no fairer (or more deadly) prosecutor ever represented the Crown that the writer of this letter; but surely his counsel is one of perfection. It is not reasonable to expect every advocate in the heat of a trial to observe the strict impartiality of a judge. We can hardly believe that Sir H. Poland really meant to imply that every prisoner is just as likely to get justice if he is undefended. If, then, a prisoner is helped by counsel, we maintain that justice demands that poverty should not deprive a man of that help.
Five years ago the Bar Council resolved, "that it is in the interest of all prisoners (considering their interests alone) that they should be defended by counsel; and that the passing of the Criminal Evidence Act, 1898, renders it more desirable than before that they should be so defended." Nothing seems to have been done, however, to give effect to the resolution, and it does not appear that anything would have been done except for the action of the Dorset Sessions.
It is now said that the action of that sessions is contrary to etiquette. Etiquette, however, should not be allowed to interfere with what is fair and just, and it is to be hoped that the council will now either support the Bill or formulate some better scheme.