SUVA, Fiji (Dec. 8) – Justice is fairly frequently postponed. But it is seldom cancelled - as 1987 coup leader and former Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka discovered yesterday and others no doubt will at a future date. More than six years after the events that surrounded the charges laid against him, he walked from the court a free man after a one mistrial and a second hearing. Sitiveni Rabuka is no stranger to controversy. But even for a seasoned campaigner such as he, the trials must have represented a serious ordeal. But there is a quite misleading tendency to imagine that the ordeal ends with Justice Winter's ringing "not guilty" verdict. Unfortunately for Mr Rabuka and others who have gone before him, in many cases the real ordeal in a lengthy trial only begins with the verdict. For that is when the defendant - not guilty or otherwise - has to come to terms with the cost of obtaining justice.

It is not cheap and that is not fair. For while the state as prosecutor has access to public funds to hire the finest legal team that can be found, the defendant is obliged to fall back on his or her own resources to try and match it. And while judges and assessors are not primarily swayed by the standard of advocacy deployed before them, a good trial lawyer can still make a significant contribution to the final outcome. But good trial lawyers don't work for nothing. Nor should they be expected to. They expect to be paid and they can command substantial fees that even someone as prominent as Mr Rabuka might find daunting. And the sad fact is that for many people of modest means the cost of justice is quite simply beyond them.

Six years is a big chunk of anyone's life. That's how long it has taken to bring this case to a conclusion and that's how long the defendant and his family have suffered the pain of investigation, preparation and eventual trial. The law offers no compensation for this. Justice is expected to be its own reward. But at the time most of these laws were framed, justice tended to be swift - sometimes too swift, perhaps. But the thought of a six-year span between alleged offence and final acquittal could not have been in the best legal minds of that age. Nor could the possibility of today's cost structure, a career incentive that to the mediaeval predecessors of today's top guns would have represented, quite literally, a king's ransom. But where does all this leave the innocent defendant? In reality it leaves him or her very substantially reduced in personal worth and very often simply broke and in debt. Win or lose, the cost of justice can be very high indeed.

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