Lord Irvine gives ground on public defenders system

THE LORD Chancellor's plans to introduce a US-style public defender system has met with a barrage of criticisms from fellow Peers.

The Lord Chancellor refuses to drop the idea of salaried defenders, but has bowed to pressure to include quality control measures and a conduct code for them in the Access to Justice Bill.

He has also backed down over provisions which apparently limit a defendant's choice of representation, and agreed to place a duty on the Legal Services Commission (LSC) to provide aid in the interests of justice rather than when it considers it appropriate.

During a Lords debate, which he described as a Pandora's box, Lord Archer of Sandwell predicted “an almost collegial” relationship bet-ween Criminal Defence Service (CDS) defenders and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), thanks to their common interest in disposing of cases quickly.

He warned: “The most conscientious of advisers may be at risk of allowing that to colour the advice he gives”.

Promotion ambitions could also tarnish their independence, he said.

Lord Thomas of Gresford describes the CDS as a “step nearer to Government control”, and attacked the idea of career defenders.

“I believe it to be undesirable to have sheep and goats in the criminal justice system,” he says.

Baroness Mallalieu said public defender systems in other countries were generally viewed as “little short of disaster”, and warned that limiting a defendant's right to a choice of lawyer breached the European Convention.

But Lord Irvine disputed that salaried defenders would be second rate.

“On the contrary, we believe that in those cases where salaried defenders may be used… they will provide a benchmark of quality and cost against which other defence lawyers can be judged,” he said.

He said the new defenders would not supplant either independent barristers or solicitors and would be introduced only after rigorous pilot schemes.

He also promised to make them subject to a professional head within their organisation “to reduce even further the risk to their professional independence”.