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If you are at the police station or the Magistrates’ Court without legal representation, you are entitled by law to see a duty solicitor to ensure that your legal rights are upheld, and that due process (i.e. proper procedures) are followed at the station or in court.
A duty solicitor is a solicitor from a criminal defence law firm who will come to the police station to represent you if you are arrested and if you ask for a lawyer to be present. Sometimes, the solicitor will advise you on the telephone rather than attending in person. Duty solicitors also attend the Magistrates’ Court, and they represent persons who have been charged with an offence and who have not (yet) instructed a criminal defence solicitor. Duty solicitors come from private criminal defence solicitor firms that are on the Legal Aid Agency’s list. The firms attend police stations according to a rota. The quality of the legal representative who turns up as your duty solicitor can vary widely. In some cases, you could be lucky and receive a highly experienced solicitor from a well-respected firm. On the other hand, you may find yourself represented during your police station interview by a police station representative. In some cases, this could be a relatively inexperienced paralegal who is not able to give you clear and helpful advice. The good news is that if you are not happy with your duty solicitor, you do not have to stick with them for the rest of your case.
Duty solicitors are regulated criminal defence solicitors who are duty bound to provide independent advice. As such, you can be confident that your duty solicitor will not be conspiring with the police or the prosecutor against you. However, this does not necessarily guarantee that you will receive the high-quality level of service that you deserve. In order to become registered on the duty solicitor scheme, a solicitor needs to have undertaken at least 12 Magistrates’ Court hearings, at least 12 police station attendances, and a further 12 hearings or attendances that may be made up of any combination of Crown Court hearings, Magistrates’ Court hearings, police station attendances, or Magistrates’ Court duty slots. This should offer some guarantee that your representative is experienced, currently practising, and up to date on all relevant criminal laws and police station procedures. That said, duty solicitors can be overworked and sleep-deprived, especially if they have been working night shifts and travelling between different police stations. Unfortunately, this can impact the quality of their work sometimes.
At the police station, you should first have the opportunity to speak to a qualified criminal defence solicitor on the telephone. After that, the firm may send out a police station representative to attend the interview with you. A police station representative does not necessarily need to be a fully qualified solicitor, but the police station representative does nonetheless have to be accredited by the Solicitors Regulation Authority. The accreditation process requires the police station representative to have a law degree or to have passed an exam on criminal law. They will then have to submit a record of their police station attendances demonstrating their knowledge and practical experience. They will also have to pass a practical examination. The register of police station representatives is regulated by the Legal Aid Agency.
At the police station
The role of your criminal defence solicitor or police station representative at the police station is to protect your best interests and make sure that your rights are upheld. Your representative will request disclosure from the police about the reason for your arrest and the evidence held against you. This will give you an insight into how much evidence the police have against you.
Your representative will then meet you before your interview, in private. You will have an opportunity to discuss the strength of the police’s evidence against you, as well as the approach that you should take during the interview. If there is very little evidence, it may be best to remain silent. On the other hand, if you have a key piece of evidence that would exonerate you, it could be better to cooperate in full. Another option may be to prepare a written statement with your solicitor setting out your account of what happened. Then, when you are questioned in the interview, you can answer ‘no comment’. It can make you look bad at court to answer some questions but not others, especially if you fail to answer a question at the police station but later seek to rely upon it during your testimony at court. However, it is difficult to generalise. The best approach to take will depend on the facts of your case. If you intend to plead not guilty, it is important that you get good advice at the police station. If you accidentally incriminate yourself during your police interview, it is likely to be difficult to prepare an effective defence later on.
Your solicitor will also ensure that the police follow the correct procedures when interviewing you and conducting identity procedures. The police are obliged to follow the Codes of Practice established under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) 1984. These codes set out the rights to detainees and specify the way in which identity procedures and police interviews should be conducted. Your solicitor will be able to advise you if the police fail to conduct themselves properly and will be able to raise objections on your behalf. In addition, your representative will help ensure that you have access to an interpreter or an appropriate adult if you need one. They will also ensure that you receive medical treatment if you are in need of it.
During the interview itself, your solicitor can play an important role in ensuring that the police interviewer only asks appropriate questions and does not bend the rules to gather evidence to support a prosecution. If the interviewer asks a question that is leading or designed to pressurise you into giving a certain type of answer, your solicitor can object.
The duty solicitor can represent you at your first appearance at the Magistrates’ Court. During this hearing you will be asked to indicate your plea. Prior to giving your plea, the duty solicitor will make sure that your rights are observed and ensure that you have access to independent and impartial legal advice. The duty solicitor is only permitted to represent you if you have been remanded in custody, or if you could face a sentence of imprisonment if you are convicted. You are only eligible if you have not yet received advice from a solicitor. You are not eligible if you have already pleaded not guilty, or if you have pleaded guilty and the case has been adjourned for pre-sentence reports.
The easiest way to arrange for a duty solicitor is to call the court in advance of your hearing date and request representation from the duty solicitor. Each court procedure varies slightly, but generally there is a rota of duty solicitors from different local firms and the one that is available on the day will meet you before your hearing to advise you how to proceed and what the next steps will be. If you are not able to call for whatever reason, you should still be able to secure a solicitor, but bear in mind that duty solicitors serve many clients at one time so that can lead to delays in getting seen.
The duty solicitor scheme is run by the Legal Aid Agency, sometimes referred to simply as the ‘LAA’. You do not have to pay for your police station representative or a duty solicitor who represents you at the Magistrates’ Court.
The good news is that for a duty solicitor, there is no means test, and you should not have to complete any forms. This protection is in place to ensure that everyone has access to a duty solicitor if they need help.
However, for the other hearings in your case, the preparation for your trial, and the trial itself, you will either need to be granted legal aid or pay privately for a criminal defence solicitor.
It is up to you whether you continue to instruct the firm that provided your duty solicitor, or you switch to a different criminal defence solicitor. If you feel that the solicitor whom you originally spoke with did a good job, it can be beneficial for them to continue to represent you because you have already spoken with each other, and they are familiar with your case. If you are eligible for legal aid, your solicitor will apply to the LAA for a Criminal Representation Order to continue representing you for the rest of the case. If you are ineligible for legal aid, you will have to pay privately for your solicitor.
If you are not satisfied with the advice or representation that you have received from the duty solicitor, contact Stuart Miller Solicitors today. Our team of experienced criminal defence solicitors will pull out all the stops to make sure that we mount the best possible defence on your behalf. Contact us for a free no-obligation consultation today.