By David Philpott, 26th October 2022
The Duty Solicitor scheme ensures that anyone who is interviewed by the police and many people who appear in court charged with criminal offences are able to have access to a lawyer. The scheme was created in the 1980s when it was recognised that legal representation was a right that ought to be safeguarded for anyone detained by the police whatever their circumstances. Today it means that in every area of England and Wales there are solicitors and accredited legal representatives from local firms who are available to provide advice and representation around the clock every day of the year. The scheme works on the basis of a rotas in each area of the country that are administered by the Legal Aid Agency with all of the participating lawyers being accredited.
The Duty downfall
However, whilst the scheme has worked well for many years the number of firms and solicitors carrying out this type of work is declining at such a rate that the Law Society describes the situation as “a looming crisis” and says that it could have “a catastrophic effect on the criminal justice system”. Many firms have decided that the rates of remuneration mean that it is no longer viable for them to carry out this work. Many solicitors entering the profession have decided to pursue their careers in other areas of law.
The figures are certainly stark. During the past five years the number of Duty Solicitors has fallen by 28%. The solicitors who do remain on the scheme are ageing with almost a quarter being over 50. In some regions the figures are even higher with 74% of Duty Solicitors in Cornwall being over that age. Norfolk, Shropshire and Warwickshire are counties where none of the members of the scheme are under 35. There are parts of the country where there are so few participants that the schemes are scarcely viable with solicitors having to be called in from other areas and often travelling significant distances to represent people either at the police station or in the Magistrates Court. It is clear that unless steps are taken to address the alarming decline in the numbers of Duty Solicitors the impact upon the criminal justice system could be very significant with potentially some of the most vulnerable people going unrepresented. This is at a time when the courts are already struggling with a very significant backlogue of cases.
How do we support?
At Olliers we are proud of the fact that we participate in the Duty Solicitor Scheme. We also recognise that it is essential that people considering entering the profession are encouraged to think about a career in criminal law. We run a summer intern programme every year giving a number of young people the opportunity to experience for a week what life as a criminal defence solicitor is like. Several of our partners act as mentors for local law students. We are also committed to doing what we can to help train the next generation of criminal defence lawyers; we have a number of trainee solicitors as well as people completing solicitor apprenticeships. The Duty Solicitor scheme is a vital public service and it is very much to be hoped that steps will be taken to ensure that it continues.