US-style public defenders set for Britain

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The Independent Online
A controversial American-style "public defender" system is to be tried out in the United Kingdom for the first time as part of a shake- up of the legal aid scheme in Scotland.

Henry McLeish, the Scottish home affairs minister, said the system, under which an accused is advised and represented by salaried lawyers employed by the public sector, would be piloted next year.

In a further attempt to cut Scotland's pounds 133.6m legal aid bill, all solicitors providing criminal legal aid will have to register with the Scottish Legal Aid Board and abide by its code of practice.

The number of solicitors' firms in the public defender pilot will be restricted to six and the study may only last for five years, after which the powers would lapse without fresh legislation. But the development is being widely seen as a precursor to the introduction of the system nationwide.

For the past 12 months, the Lord Chancellor's Department has been considering whether to import the idea to England and Wales, and its potential advantages and savings are currently being studied by Sir Peter Middleton, the former Treasury mandarin, in his review of the pounds 1.6bn legal aid budget.

At present, accused people on legal aid choose their own lawyers from firms in private practice. Lawyers both sides of the border have largely opposed any change, saying a public defender system would usher in a second- rate service staffed by lawyers who could not get jobs in private practice or the Crown Prosecution Service. There are also fears about under-funding and the risk that lawyers would be pressurised to extract guilty pleas to save trial costs.

Cameron Fyfe, of Ross Harper & Murphy, a leading Glasgow firm, said: "We are going to have a two-tier system, with the rich choosing their lawyer and the poor being dumped with a public defender. We should look at administration costs and that in turn would bring the bill down."

But the Law Society of Scotland appeared to concede defeat yesterday. "We have made plain our concerns," John Elliot, the president, said. "However, we are committed to making sure that the public defender experiment is a fair one and to monitoring the results. The Law Society believes that a solicitor chosen by an accused person provides the best means of representation."

One of the most bizarre examples of the pressures facing US public defenders came in the case of Richard Teisser, a public defender who successfully sued himself, demanding that a judge declare his work inadequate and order the state of Louisiana to provide more resources. But schemes in other jurisdictions appear to have fared better.