Pensioner frustrated by crumbling US public defender service turns to a cuddly to for legal advice; lessons for UK legal aid?
A defendant who told a Colorado judge he wanted to be represented by a toy owl has highlighted the woeful state of the US public defender system in a tale that could have lessons for the future of legal aid on this side of the Atlantic.
Pensioner Charles Abbott was appearing before Judge Erin Fernandez-Ely in relation to a dust-up with his former flatmate, 75-year-old Michael Stranahan.
The 67-year-old Abbott was charged with breaching an injunction barring him from returning to a flat he shared with his estranged chum. He informed the beak that he was still waiting for a public defender to be allocated — and in the meantime, he had instructed a cuddly toy grey-horned owl called Solomon to represent him.
The defendant maintained the toy was more than qualified to advocate on his behalf, having gained degrees from three top law schools: Harvard, Yale and Stanford.
Rather tediously, Judge Fernandez-Ely wasn’t wearing it. According to Legal Cheek’s US counterparts at Above the Law, the bench responded with po-faced aloofness and ignored Solomon.
But the incident starkly illustrated the ever-deteriorating state of public defence in the US. Wrote Above the Law co-editor, Joe Patrice:
“[There is a] very real justice gap issue highlighted by Solomon’s introduction to the proceedings …
“Solomon the Owl isn’t a madman’s idea of a joke, it’s pointed trolling. A visual reminder that the American justice system promises representation (it’s right there in those Miranda rights you hear in every police procedural you watch) yet often fails to deliver.
“For all the sanctimonious lip service, in reality, public defender offices are massively overworked and understaffed, they’re almost always the first agency on the chopping block …”
Sentiments that must sound familiar to UK criminal law legal aid practitioners.