The system, where the accused is advised and represented by salaried lawyers employed by the public sector, was once viewed as unthinkable by ministers. But in what could be a significant change of attitude, the Lord Chancellor's Department has given the go-ahead for civil servants to visit the US to carry out a detailed study.
One of the most fabled examples of the problems facing under-funded US schemes was the case of Richard Teisser, a New Orleans public defender who successfully sued himself, demanding a judge declare his work inadequate and order the state of Louisiana to provide more resources.
The visit by Ian Burns, head of the law and policy group at the department, and two other officials, comes in the wake of plans by Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State for Scotland, to set up pilot schemes for such a system north of the border. There was vociferous opposition from the Law Society of Scotland when Mr Forsyth announced the proposals in June in the White Paper Crime and Punishment.
As in England and Wales, Scottish criminal defence work is provided by private practice lawyers paid for by the Legal Aid Board or, if he or she can afford it, the client. Mr Forsyth, along with the Scottish Legal Aid Board, believes a public defender scheme would achieve better value for money in a criminal legal aid system that has seen spending spiral from pounds 25m in 1987-88 to pounds 76m in 1994-95 and average case costs more than doubling in recent years.
But the Law Society warned that innocent people could be jailed because US experience had shown that public defenders were underfunded, overworked, and under constant pressure to extract guilty pleas to save trial costs.
Russell Wallman, head of professional policy at the Law Society of England & Wales, said: "We don't think that a public defender system would be compatible with the choice which defendants are entitled to expect, and experience with other jurisdictions suggests that it is difficult to maintain quality. There is no political will to fund proper representation."
Mr Wallman said the society might take a different view if a scheme was run in genuine parallel with the existing system, with the offender being given a proper choice. But he added: "There are obvious problems of client confidence. I don't think the criminal field is the place to start a salaried legal service."
Richard Scott, chief executive of the Scottish Legal Aid Board, has called for a 70-30 private-public split. The Government has emphasised in relation to Scottish proposals that it is not suggesting a 100 per cent salaried defence service. It believes a mixed system would cut costs and improve efficiency.Reuse content