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LEADING criminal solicitor Tony Edwards has joined calls for a radical reform of the duty solicitor scheme following complaints from some practitioners that local committees are operating cartels across the country.
According to Edwards, who sits on the Law Society's criminal law committee and is senior partner of TV Edwards & Co, local duty solicitor committees "are a disaster area and should be abolished".
Edwards said the committees suffered from a conflict of interest as members who earned their livelihood from duty solicitor work were also regulating the schemes.
"It is wholly unacceptable to have a system which is built on conflict of interest, and I receive regular complaints about the quality of interviewing and decision-making," he said.
Edwards, who trains duty solicitors, was responding to an initiative by Durham solicitor Brian Shieldhouse to gather evidence about the system from the profession.
In a letter in The Lawyer this week (see page 8), Shieldhouse, who believes some local committees are operating a cartel, calls for people who consider that "they have been unfairly treated" to contact him.
Shieldhouse, who makes his living from rota work on the duty solicitor circuit, claims the system is "undemocratic" and "open to abuse" by unelected committee members. "Rota members who are on the local committee effectively wield the power of professional life and death over colleagues," he said. "What is needed is for some sort of independent commission to look into it."
Among the reforms suggested by Shieldhouse are the publication of the minutes of meetings of the committees and restrictions on the length of the period that solicitors can sit on them.
But the Legal Aid Board's Simon Hillyard, national duty solicitor coordinator, denied there were any problems with the system.
"Any complaints are dealt with according to proper legal processes and the rules of natural justice," he said, adding: "If there is any bias locally, then the solicitor can appeal to the regional committee and then to the national committee. And, at that stage, if they are still not satisfied, they can apply for judicial review."