Written evidence from Dan Baldwin
Legal Aid Review, call for evidence:
- LASPO – no particular comment, no better or worse than any other reform on the whole
- The role of the LAA; very serious consideration ought to be paid to its very existence. The DSCC ought to be outright scrapped, they add no value whatsoever. At present the DSCC is a call centre that intervenes in an online form, often incorrectly, when there is nothing in principle to prevent a completely automated system being put in place for police station defence lawyers. In terms of the LAA overall, it ought to be considered in a cost-benefit analysis whether the time and money currently wasted on LAA applications by defence lawyers, and the court time wasted in adjourned hearings waiting on legal aid, is worth the cost of the agency existing at all and whether everyone ought in principle to be granted legal aid irrespective of income. – should they have the means a defendant can always still choose private representation at whatever higher rate a firm charges.
- Recruitment and retention – dire need of police station representatives, whose average age is into the 40’s. The core problem is only a solicitor can oversee the training of a new representative, not an accredited representative themselves. But, since solicitors are usually in court (hence the very existence of accredited representatives to go in their stead!) it is very difficult to begin a career as a police station representative as often only accredited representatives are going to the police station enough to oversee a proper trainee. It often takes many months, which no sane person would commit to for no pay. The pay scale at the police station also needs to be increased. It needs to be recognised that 95% of the time the fee paid to the firm, which varies from £180-£300 or so, is split in half with the representative. This fee covers the first 10hrs of work, thus a representative in some areas is being paid £9 an hour to represent people accused of murder! The previous high fees were excessive, but they need to be raised back up in many areas as the current pay is unsustainable and not attractive enough to recruit new representatives.
- Technology – the DCS is one of the few really good innovations. And the new NICE portal is everything Egress should have been. However – why on earth are magistrates’ cases not on the DCS? The current IT approach is a mess – you email one body to get magistrates’ IDPC, you email someone else for ongoing case papers, if it moves to the crown court you get some papers on DCS, some emailed via CJSM – you can’t update the judge on anything on DCS so you have to email it anyway… awful. There should be a single system for everything. DCS works fine, it just ought to be expanded to included magistrates’ cases, and nothing should ever be emailed. Change the rules if need be – nothing is to be considered ‘served’ unless it is uploaded to DCS (and while there is a button to notify the CPS of anything uploaded there is none to notify the court, for the love of god just add that button!). no unused via email, no NICE portal links – everything in DCS, or it’s not considered part of the case. NICE portal links under the appropriate area in the DCS – fine. But the glaring hole in the current system is that legally you are required not to handicap people representing themselves (however ill advised and rare that is), yet you cannot access the NICE evidence system without a CJSM email. Massive flaw. You also cannot access the DCS without one. Same flaw. Both systems must be made accessible, at least in theory, to any email address in case a person chooses to represent themselves. Further, access to the DCS needs to be streamlined, perhaps with a tickbox system for anyone with a CJSM account (for instance you can self select access to a case and select reason such as defence lawyer, duty solicitor for the day, agent for defence etc, and a record kept of all access so if there is anything untoward it is traced back immediately to the solicitor or barrister concerned).
- Impact of covid19 – the prison system is a joke. They have been the worst part of this pandemic. They don’t have any in person visits, they don’t have enough video booths. In an ideal world every prison would have a separate legal room somewhere on site staffed by a court employee. Currently moving papers around digitally is all well and good except for when your client is in prison and they have a 2 week delay on mail. Systems like email a prisoner cannot accept Rule 39 mail. However, were there an independent legal service, even one employee, inside every prison who is subject to the same confidentiality as the court staff, then defence lawyers could email bundles, statements, proofs etc to this one person and name the prisoner they need to be printed off and delivered to, massively saving in court costs and adjournments etc.
- Challenges – the finances are bringing the system to its knees. There has been no real pay increase in more than a decade, something MP’s complain about if even a single year of pay increase at double the inflation rate is even suggested for themselves. I’m sure you’d be horrified at the expense to the state if you cared to work out just what the even meagre current pay of defence solicitors is had they even been paid in line with inflation, let alone actually increasing it, yet this is what is necessary. On a related note – LAA contracts pay out per month per fee earner. There is no allowance for support or admin staff which is ridiculous. There needs to be an allowance, one admin per X fee earners, written into the legal aid contracts.