Quality of legal advice for suspects criticised

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The Independent Online

THREE out of four suspects who ask to see a solicitor before being questioned by police are sent unqualified and ill-prepared clerks or trainees, writes Heather Mills.

Most are not told that their 'legal' adviser is not qualified, according to a study published yesterday. The report, for the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice, was also critical of police interrogation techniques. Questioning was directed 'not towards eliciting accounts from suspects but more particularly to obtaining confessions,' it said.

It challenged police claims that defence lawyers routinely advise clients to remain silent under questioning in order to win acquittals, finding only one in five suspects was advised to do so. Nearly half were told to co-operate, while a further 31 per cent were given no advice at all.

Failures by police and defence lawyers suggested to the researchers that the right to silence should be strengthened rather than eroded or abolished as some politicians, senior police officers and prosecutors have demanded.

They concluded that reforms introduced in the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act - aimed at striking a balance between police powers and suspects' rights by entitling anyone in custody to consult a solicitor - were being undermined.

The researchers, from Warwick University, spent six months observing interviews at police stations with clients of 17 large criminal legal aid firms. They also studied the work of freelance advisers employed by defence solicitors to give cover at police stations.