A worsening economic outlook and a state election in Queensland this year should stimulate an urgent overhaul of the neglected issue of defendants acquitted of a criminal offence having their costs reimbursed, writes Tim Meehan of Ryan and Bosscher Lawyers, Brisbane.
As a criminal defence lawyer I believe it is grossly unfair, especially in the current economic climate, that people could face considerable expense defending themselves against criminal charges, yet have no right to be reimbursed for their costs.
Although the issue has been raised several times in recent years, the state Government has not overhauled the current laws. A state election this year, possibly earlier than expected, coupled with growing economic fears, means now is a good time to address the costs iniquity.
There is a serious imbalance in the law about costs reimbursement. District Court and Supreme Court trials cost tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of dollars. Whether a client funds the trial from their pocket by selling their house, or borrowing from friends and family, or whether Legal Aid (Queensland) must foot the bill, the result is the same - an acquitted person (or Legal Aid) is out of pocket and cannot recover their costs.
"Refusing to reimburse an
acquitted person's costs is just a
different form of punishment"
Under the system, if a defendant is convicted, a complainant can make an application for compensation. But if the accused is acquitted, there is no provision for their costs to be refunded.
Criminal defence lawyers argue that people accused of a crime should be put back into the same financial position as they were before the charge was laid. People charged with a crime can lose their reputation, relationships and job.
It is grossly unfair to put someone through the rigours of a trial, acquit them, and then tell them they have no right to recoup their expenses. Refusing to reimburse an acquitted person's costs is just a different form of punishment.
This is graphically illustrated by the experience of a former client, from the South East Queensland city of Ipswich, who had been cleared by a jury in the District Court of nine charges of raping his runaway 14-year-old daughter.
The man spent three months in custody after the wayward teen accused him and her mother of sexual assaults after they blocked her moves to live with her adult boyfriend.
The parents went to hell and back. The mother's charges were dropped but the father's case went to trial and the jury found him not guilty nine times, yet financially he was not entitled to receive any reimbursement of his costs.
Given the economic outlook for 2009 - and the many predictions of tough economic times ahead - it is grossly unfair to continue to financially penalise acquitted people, who now will need their costs reimbursed more than ever before.
Our justice system is not a fair one if it tries a person, acquits them, but, in effect, punishes them for something the courts have deemed they did not do.
Now, more than ever, it is time for Queensland law to be changed and made fairer for acquitted people.
Tim Meehan is a criminal defence lawyer and Chief Executive Officer of Brisbane-based national criminal defence law firm Ryan and Bosscher Lawyers.