Law: Ensuring the best service for suspects: Barbara Lantin looks at moves to improve the role of lawyers helping detained persons

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The Independent Online
The public image of the solicitor at a police station - as seen on TV - is not a pretty one. Stupefyingly passive or alarmingly aggressive, he or she often appears to be the kind of friend a client could do without.

The truth may be quite different. But the launch of some initiatives aimed specifically at solicitors and their representatives who deal with suspects at police stations suggests that the profession is well aware of its deficiencies.

First came the unveiling earlier this year of Law Society guidelines for those advising suspects in police station interviews.

Then came news of the joint Law Society and Legal Aid Board accreditation scheme. From next February the board will not pay for advice given by a solicitor's representative in the police station unless that person is approved under the scheme or is registered with the board as a probationer.

Next year a solicitor is launching a course designed to help his fellow practitioners give a better service to detained suspects.

'On the whole, standards in this area have improved enormously over the past eight years or so,' believes Robert Roscoe, a member of the Law Society's criminal law committee.

'Questions about the role of solicitors in some well publicised cases and expressions of concern by the Lord Chief Justice have led to a great deal of work being done to get better people at police stations.'

The Law Society's guidelines come in the form of a training kit, Police Station Skills for Legal Advisers, which includes a 1,000-page book and audio cassettes. Following criticism of the passivity of solicitors at interviews in two separate submissions to the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice, the Law Society admitted that legal advisers had appeared confused about their role at the police station.

The freeing of George Heron - acquitted in October 1993 of the murder of a seven-year-old Sunderland girl after the judge described police questioning as oppressive - proved a case in point.

As a result the kit includes a chapter on how to monitor police behaviour during an interview and how to intervene when questioning becomes unacceptable. This indicates a shift of emphasis towards a more assertive and demanding approach by legal representatives to the police.

'A legal adviser in the police station must be skilled and represent the suspect fearlessly,' said Graham White, chairman of the Criminal Law Committee, at the kit's launch. 'As this pack emphasises, the adviser's role is that of defender.'

This is a view endorsed by Neil Corre, at present preparing a course for solicitors representing clients at a police station. 'A lot of solicitors are much too passive,' he says. 'They don't ask to see the custody record and they don't intervene even if the questioning gets oppressive.

'They see themselves as a kind of guest who must behave in accordance with police rules. Of course this view communicates itself to the client, who consequently does not regard the solicitor as somebody with power.

'Solicitors need to be more assertive so that the client realises that they can influence the way the client is treated in custody.'

Mr Corre, a member of five of the busiest London duty solicitor schemes and author of a book on bail, says the course could be useful to even seasoned practitioners. 'Even experienced solicitors sometimes leave the police station with the unsatisfactory feeling that they have not done all they could to protect the interests of their client,' he says.

'The reason for this is that knowledge of the law, although essential, is not enough. The solicitor needs to understand the human factors that determine what happens in the police station.'

As a result there will be a good deal of emphasis on psychology - of the relationship between police officer, suspect and solicitor, of confessions, of identification by witnesses.

'Lawyers seem reluctant to make use of other disciplines in ways that would help them achieve their proper aim of assisting their client. A knowledge of psychology is vital to carrying out that task.'

Failing to spot the vulnerable suspect who is likely to make misleading statements or perhaps a false confession is one area where even an experienced solicitor can come adrift and where some grasp of psychology can be helpful.

Research carried out for the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice suggests that there are far more people in this 'vulnerable' category than is generally assumed. They may include people with learning difficulties, the mentally ill or disturbed and people who are highly anxious for a whole range of reasons.

When Dr Gisli Gudjonsson, a forensic psychologist at the Maudsley Hospital, studied a group of suspects at police stations in South-east England, he and his colleagues found that around 20 per cent were showing extremely high levels of anxiety. The researchers considered that there were sound clinical reasons for an 'appropriate adult' to be present at the interview of 25 suspects. However, such an adult was only called in by the police in seven of the cases.

'Vulnerable people who suffer extreme distress by being detained at a police station are more liable to give misleading or unreliable information to the police, possibly falsely incriminating themselves,' Dr Gudjonsson says.

'Sometimes the uncertainty of not knowing what is going to happen to them makes them very anxious. Solicitors need to be aware of this possibility.'

Such people may make falsely self-incriminating statements for a whole raft of reasons - because they are under pressure, do not understand what is going on, actually believe they are guilty or enjoy being the centre of attention.

Dr Gudjonsson believes that the new caution, likely to come into effect next March, could well increase the scope for misunderstanding by some suspects, not only because of its length - 60 words compared with the present 22 - but because of its complexity.

'The whole concept of the new caution is very complicated - that if you remain silent it could have certain implications later. It puts a much greater burden on the solicitor because he has to be very clear in his own mind what these implications are and he has to explain this to his client.'

Apparently it is not enough for a solicitor simply to ask his client if he understands the caution. A suspect may say yes because he is too embarrassed to admit that he does not understand, or because he is not aware that he has not grasped all the possible ramifications.

'Solicitors must test out whether the suspect really understands the caution by asking him to paraphrase what it says,' Dr Gudjonsson advises.

'The really important thing,' Mr Roscoe says, 'is that solicitors never prejudge matters before they get to the police station. Each case and each client is different.

'You might advise one client to say nothing at all and another on the same case - where there was no conflict of interest, of course - to answer all the questions put to him. You must go in with an open mind and be alert to all the possibilities.'

Police Station Skills for Legal Advisers from The Law Society Shop, 227 The Strand, London WC2R 1BA.

The Law and Psychology of Advising the Suspect at a Police Station: London Legal Lectures, 081 346 8524.

(Photograph omitted)