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Criminal lawyers have condemned a Home Office plan to speed up justice as ill-conceived and likely to lead to legal miscarriages.
In a briefing last week, Home Office officials announced that from 1 October in six pilot areas, clients who plead guilty will be expected to use the solicitor on duty, not one of their own choice. The pilot areas are: Blackburn and Burnley; Bromley, Croydon and Sutton; Northamptonshire; North Staffordshire; north Wales; and Tyneside.
But the announcement appears to have been made without much thought, according to the Law Society's criminal law expert, Roger Ede, who was the only solicitor representative on the 21-strong panel which devised the scheme.
Criminal lawyers have condemned the reforms for putting speed and cost-cutting above justice. The reforms would encourage police officers to pressure defendants into pleading guilty so they could get their court ordeal over with quickly, solicitors claimed.
Under the plans, anyone charged who wishes to plead guilty will see a duty solicitor, and the investigating officers will pass on the prosecution papers to a lay Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) clerk based at the police station.
The following afternoon, a duty solicitor will represent the defendant, a lay CPS employee will prosecute and a magistrate will issue the sentence, in a time slot set aside for such "early first hearings".
The Legal Action Group (LAG) pointed out that to make the scheme work, everyone arrested will have to tell police which way they plan to plead before they can be represented by a solicitor - an illegal procedure.
Head of policy at the LAG, Vicki Chapman, believes the proposals could lead to miscarriages of justice, especially where young or vulnerable people are concerned.
"I would have very serious reservations about the police trying to gather whether a defendant is intending to plead guilty or not guilty before they've had legal advice and a chance to test the strength of the prosecution case," she said.
Steve Wedd, chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association, said that expecting court duty solicitors to represent clients without preparation would waste more time, because lawyers would have to request more adjournments to consult with their clients.
Roger Ede commented: "They haven't thought out the procedure for how this would work out in practice."
If implemented nationwide after the six-month trial, the plan would mean that one in four of the 8,000 defence lawyers across England and Wales would be denied access to guilty plea work - roughly three quarters of all magistrates' court cases.
Neither the Lord Chancellor's Department nor the Home Office have pump-primed the pilot, which they expect to be self-financing.