Report says despite early wobble Public Defender Service provides vital protection
The results of a major, independent evaluation of the Public Defender Service (PDS) in England and Wales have been published today 31st July 2007 by The Stationery Office. Professor Lee Bridges from The University of Warwick who led the research team said: “Our report shows that despite early cost overruns, hurried implementation and poor initial planning the Public Defender Service can be a vital safeguard in the new market-based system of criminal legal aid, providing protection against the market concentration and instability that may result from a system of competitive tendering for defence services”.
The research involved a detailed comparison of the PDS and private criminal defence solicitors’ firms in six areas of the country (Birmingham, Liverpool, Middlesbrough, Swansea, Pontypridd and Cheltenham). The main findings of the research were:
That the PDS has been able to deliver high quality criminal defence, in most instances of an equal or higher standard than the best private criminal defence firms. This finding is based on one of the largest and most comprehensive surveys, involving independent peer review, of the quality of criminal defence work ever conducted;
That the PDS has established a reputation amongst clients and other criminal justice professionals for the robust and independent defence of its clients. For example, PDS lawyers more frequently advise their clients in police stations to exercise their right to silence, yet PDS clients are more likely to be released from police custody without charge.
That during its initial three years of operation (2001-4), when the PDS was building its client base, it incurred substantially higher costs than other criminal defence providers. These high costs were the result of the intense competition amongst criminal defence providers in most of the areas where the PDS has operated, a situation exacerbated by the hurried implementation and poor initial planning of the PDS in terms of its objectives, staffing and location. More recent evidence suggests that with a larger client base, the PDS can operate more efficiently.
The research concludes by considering the future role for the PDS within the new ‘market-based’ system of criminal legal aid now being pursued by the Government and the Legal Services Commission, based on fixed fees and a rapid move toward competitive tendering among private practice solicitors in different areas of the country. It suggests that the PDS has a vital role to play in
providing protection against the market concentration and instability that may result from a system of competitive tendering for defence services.
as a guarantee of client choice and quality in criminal defence services, and
in supporting future service improvement and innovation in this field.
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