Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Speculating on the Public Defender Service: Some Questions

In an interesting move, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) today announced the appointment of two QCs to the Public Defender Service (PDS). It also posted an advertisement to recruit more lawyers to the organisation. This follows the announcement of a new Head of Advocacy in October 2013The PDS was created in 2001; it provides publicly-funded criminal defence services and is an arm of the state. Therefore, PDS lawyers are state employees with fixed salaries, much like the Crown Proesecution Service (CPS), whereas private firms of solicitors and the self-employed Bar - who supply the majority of defence services - are akin to independent contractors, paid with public money. The PDS is a small organisation. It has only four offices - in Cheltenham, Darlington, Pontypridd and Swansea - reduced from eight (Liverpool, Chester, Birmingham, Middlesbrough have all closed). The announcement has quickly generated controversy and drawn criticism, from the Law Society as well as the blogs and Twitter accounts of lawyers. The announcement raises a number of interesting questions, some of which do not necessarily have clear answers:

- Why are the Government investing money in expanding the PDS, whilst proposing fee cuts for all private criminal defence suppliers?

- Is the Government aiming to rebuild the PDS to its original size and beyond?

- Does the Government want to exert more control over the operations of criminal defence lawyers by making them state employees?

- Is this an overt indication that the Government would prefer criminal defence services to be delivered by an arm of the state?

- Is this a first step towards a US-style universal public defender service (which has been much criticised in recent years)?

- Why have the Government not explained their justifications for these appointments at a time of proposed contraction in the defence services sector?

- Does the expansion of the PDS, a public entity, stand in contrast to both the ideology and practice of the Coalition?

- Is the timing of the announcement designed to undermine current opposition to legal aid reforms, perhaps representing a threat that work can be taken away from the private sector?

- Does active recruitment suggest the Government are preparing for strikes by defence lawyers, which the PDS will be used to cover?

- Is the Government poaching key players, in the hope that others will follow? Is it attempting to create divisions between opponents of the reforms?

- Will the temptation of a guaranteed salary and benefits (e.g. pension, holiday, etc.) tempt private sector lawyers away?

- Why has a high-profile circuit leader decided to leave the private sector for the PDS?

- Considering two of the most recent appointments (David Aubrey and Gregory Bull), is there some link between the Welsh Circuit and the expansion of the PDS?

- What position have the two QCs been appointed to? Will they simply be advocates, or are they tasked with any management/business duties?

- Is it wise or fair to appoint QCs on high wages to an organisation that currently provides a very small proportion of criminal defence services?

- What sort of clients will QCs be serving? Will they be involved in VHCC case work? How frequently is high-value work undertaken by the PDS?

- Does the PDS have a monopoly in its operating regions? Does this damage quality of service because of a lack of competition?

- What current evidence is there that the PDS provides benchmarking for quality standards, as claimed by the Government in its 'Transforming Legal Aid' consultation?

- Does criticism of the PDS by privately employed lawyers stem from a fear of competition? Is the private sector truly as competitive as it claims to be?

- Is there an argument to be made that the PDS will provide a guarantee of services to clients should private firms and chambers close in the wake of cuts?

- In the long-term, can the PDS generally pay wages that will attract talent to publicly funded criminal defence work?

- Could a well-funded, properly managed, universal public defender service, with a robust ethical framework and competitive aspects, be as effective as the private sector? Is this a realistic goal?

- How robust would ethical protections for clients be in an expanded PDS? For example, how would the Cab Rank principle cope, how 'zealous' would representation be?

- Would an expanded PDS dilute the independence of advocates, employed as they are by the state?

- Will clients be able to fully trust state-appointed defence lawyers?

- Will  fluctuating pressure on public funding directly impact on the behaviour of lawyers via their superiors - for example, in making plea decisions, accepting clients, use of time for preparation of a case, travel, etc.

- Are the interests and aims of the PDS and the private sector so different as to prevent co-existence and cooperation?

- Considering its current size, would significant expansion of the PDS not take an enormous amount of financial investment and time? Are the Government (and subsequent Governments) willing to commit to this long-term?

- Would the expansion of the PDS require a large shift in clients away from their familiar lawyers? If so, would this create issues of trust between lawyers and clients? Otherwise, would there need to be a simultaneous shift of lawyers and clients to the PDS?

- If the Government is planning to expand the PDS, is it time for a fresh, independent assessment of its effectiveness and value for money?

Any thoughts on these and any other questions would, of course, be welcome !

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