Law: Advising the advisers: Sharon Wallach reports on plans to give police suspects a fairer deal

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The Independent Online
A training kit for advisers of suspects in police station interviews was launched this week by the Law Society, at a time of mounting criticism of the quality of police station legal representation. Next week, the University of Warwich's Legal Research Institute is to publish a study that questions the professional standards and quality of much of the work done by criminal defence lawyers.

The Law Society's training package - 1,000 pages with audio cassettes - was written by Dr Eric Shepherd, psychologist to the City of London Police. It was, he said, an opportunity for the two professions to recognise that being adversarial did not have to lead to antagonism.

Launching the kit, Roger Ede, secretary of the society's criminal law committee, spoke of concern that the abolition of the right of silence would place even greater demands on legal advisers, who would in turn place greater demands on the police.

The training package, he says, is particularly timely and necessary. 'For the first time we are teaching police station work in terms of skills as well as of knowledge.' These skills include assertion, investigation, legal advice, and representation and negotiation.

Coinciding with publication of the kit, the Legal Aid Board has announced that the deadline by which police station advisers must qualify for accreditation was being extended from October to 1 February 1995. Eventually, only those on the register will qualify for payment.

The Law Society has devised a three-part accreditation scheme to guarantee the competence of solicitors' representatives. Applicants must provide a portfolio describing nine incidents of advice at the police station, including at least two as observer and another two under observation.

Information in the portfolio must cover the issues raised during the interview, explain how they were dealt with and describe any shortcomings in the advice given, as well as offer suggestions on how to address them.

The second stage of accreditation is an open-book written paper to test the applicant's understanding of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (Pace) and the codes of practice. Thirdly, there is the crucial critical-incident test of oral skills, intended to replicate police station conditions.

The accreditation scheme applies to clerks, and not solicitors, trainees or duty solicitor- authorised representatives. But the Law Society hopes that solicitors will become more skilled themselves with the help of its training material, and also support their representatives seeking accreditation.

According to the University of Warwick study, the publication of training guidelines is timely. The survey reveals poor organisation of criminal defence work in the majority of firms. There were 'substantial levels' of delegation of non-court activities - including police station advice - to junior staff, many of whom lacked legal qualifications, experience and training.

Legal representatives at police stations frequently failed to provide adequate advice to suspects, the study says, either neglecting to be present at police interviews or adopting a passive role, even in the face of dubious questioning by police.

The research also points to a 'general lack of an adversarial culture' among criminal defence lawyers. Most criminal defence work is geared towards a routine guilty plea, with new recruits being rapidly socialised into the culture and coming to see criminal clients as less deserving of professional service.

Good and committed defence practices were apparent in only a minority of the firms studied, the study says.

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