Bar Council warns Govtagainst public defenders

The Bar Council has put the Government on warning not to introduce a public defender scheme, insisting that it would be a disaster for the profession.

Senior barristers launched a pre-emptive strike against the public defender concept at the Bar Conference last month, amid growing fears among barristers that the Government is poised to an announce a public defender experiment.

The Bar is deeply concerned about the effect having a cadre of state employed young criminal barristers would have on the rest of the profession.

At the conference, Nigel Pascoe QC, chair of the Bar Council's public affairs committee, admitted that, in the short-term, a public defender scheme might prove attractive to some young barristers because of the offer of a guaranteed salary.

But he warned that the long-term consequences of taking juniors out of chambers would be disastrous.

"Where is the experienced practitioner to whom they can go and say, 'what do I do here?'," said Pascoe. "There would be a greater number of mistakes and more appeals."

Pascoe denied that the Bar was positioning itself to protect its legal services monopoly.

"It isn't about monopoly it's about providing an efficient service to the public," he said.

Although the Government has not publicly indicated whether or not it favours a public defender system, the Bar fears that it is considering such a move.

At the Bar Conference, the mood of the delegates was reflected by their warm applause when Jerome Shestack, president of the American Bar Association, said US public defender systems were full of overworked and underpaid lawyers.

Last week, speaking at the Labour Party conference, Henry Hodge, the deputy chairman of the Legal Aid Board, urged the Government to pilot a public defender scheme south of the border.

He predicted that there would be "howls of protest" from the Bar and solicitors, but insisted that the concept had to be tested.