What is a Duty Solicitor? Over the years, I’ve heard a number of confusing and downright wrong definitions from clients and even police officers …. The most common is that they are in some way affiliated with the police and/or the government and therefore not truly independent. Wrong.
A Duty Solicitor is a qualified solicitor who specialises in criminal law. Most will have passed further exams in order to become one; a few ’older’ solicitors (I prefer the term ‘experienced’) will have gained their qualification by appearing before a committee of their peers’.
Each firm with a Criminal Legal Aid contract will have a number of qualified Duty Solicitors. Each Legal Aid area has a ‘Duty Solicitor Rota’. This ensures that every hour of every day there is a Duty Solicitor on call for people detained at any police station in the area. They are all independent firms and have no connection with the police. The other role of a Duty Solicitor is at Court. The ‘Court Duty Solicitor’ assists people appearing before a magistrates court who are either in custody or on bail. Similarly, they are drawn from a rota. It pays to know that you can only ask for the assistance of the Duty Solicitor at one hearing and that many low level offences do not come under the ambit of the Court Duty Solicitor Scheme. This includes most road traffic cases, unless they are very serious. Get some advice before you go!
Contrary to what some members of the popular press would have you believe, not every person detained at a police station is a well known recidivist. For some people, it’s a new and terrifying experience. They may never have been in custody before. They may not be aware they are entitled to free advice from a solicitor, even though they should be informed of this right while in custody.
Should you find yourself in this position and do not have a solicitor, you can ask the Custody Sergeant to call the Duty Solicitor. They are then obliged (in most cases) to contact a central call centre who will contact the solicitor on call.However, remember this; rather than venturing into the unknown, if you have a preferred firm of solicitors who undertake criminal Legal Aid work, you can ask for that firm to be contacted instead.
The procedure is identical. Your solicitor will be contacted by the call centre and informed of your detention. Their advice and attendance, while you are in custody, is also free.
Should the recent proposals for the re structuring of Legal Aid proceed, the number of firms able to apply for a Duty Solicitor Contract will be significantly reduced, BUT a number of firms will still be able to provide free advice at police stations if specifically requested – so called ‘own client’ contracts.
I am in no way suggesting that blog readers are potential criminal department clients! I do, however, ask you to stop for a moment and consider what you would do in that situation? Make a mental note of who you would contact, or if you are a parent, who you would contact for your child, because another aspect of the current proposals may make it extremely hard to change public funded solicitors once you have one, or have been allocated a Duty Solicitor at the police station. Choose wisely, choose once!