At the end of an earlier article (The Advocate, January 2012), I mentioned a study (the Initiative) which involved basing duty solicitors onsite in a busy city centre police station. The Initiative ran over a three- month period during early 2011 and the findings have now been published. By having solicitors available in the police station, it was anticipated that the new arrangements would have a positive effect on the take-up of legal advice as well as help to reduce delays. This was not only intended as an efficiency measure but the involvement of solicitors helping to expedite matters was intended to counter what was seen to be a common perception among suspects that legal advisers were the main cause of delays. With solicitors based in the police station, the aim of the new arrangements was also to help improve working relations between the police and the defence.
The police station involved is based in the East Midlands and there are generally between five and seven custody sergeants on duty at any one time, as well as other custody staff. Relationships between the police and legal advisers were seen to be poor, mainly because a barrier had been erected some years ago which prevented legal advisers from entering into the main custody suite. There had been slight improvements in relations in 2010, when an additional custody suite was opened up on the first floor, to which legal advisers have access. Nevertheless, there was found to be a relatively low request rate for legal advice at this station, particularly when compared to other large custody suites.
The introduction of fixed fees in 2008 also seems to have had a detrimental impact on the quality of police station legal advice more generally, with solicitors spending less time on cases and also less time waiting around in police stations. Having received a request for legal advice, it seems that the practice of many solicitors is to wait until the police interview before attending at the station and speaking to their client. While this makes economic sense, it means that clients can be left waiting for many hours before receiving legal advice. It also means that the defence are generally accepting of the police timetable, even if there have been unduly long delays before the time of the police interview.
The Bridewell legal advice study ran from 14 February to 13 May 2011. Duty solicitors were based onsite during weekdays from 9 am to 6 pm (with two firms on duty at any one time). During that time, requests for legal advice rose slightly from 39% in 2010 to 43% in 2011, although the increase did not correspond to the time of the Initiative. This suggests that the rise was due to the Initiative helping to promote interest in legal advice generally rather than more specifically due to the onsite arrangements.
In addition, despite having duty solicitors ready to respond to a request for legal advice, there was no impact on the average length of time people were held in custody. The main problems highlighted were as follows:
- The police seldom had any evidence when bringing suspects into custody, which included cases where a complaint had been made some days previously but the police response had been delayed. While duty solicitors were able to respond quickly to a request for legal advice, they then had to wait some hours while the police carried out their investigations prior to the interview.
- Despite providing quick access to legal advice, those requesting a solicitor were spending on average five hours longer in custody than those who declined such advice. While people tend to ask for a solicitor in more complex and serious cases, which take longer, there were noted to be differences in the police approach to cautioning, depending on whether or not a solicitor was involved. Without legal advice, the police were generally ready to conduct an interview straight away, whereas this would be delayed for many hours while the police gathered evidence in cases where a solicitor was requested.
- The police were under pressure from a local performance target to increase detections. This was leading to the police bringing into custody minor first-time suspects and other "easy hits?. While custody sergeants were not always seen to be comfortable about authorising a suspect?s detention in such circumstances, there were no challenges coming from the defence. Instead, in cases where legal advice was declined, a caution would sometimes be imposed without any evidence and the legal criteria having not been met.
- It had been agreed that, when on duty, solicitors would be able to enter into the main custody suite, which was intended to help improve relations between the police and the defence. This seemed to work well initially, at least with some custody sergeants, but others resented this intrusion and solicitors could get told off for entering into this space. This led to some confusion about what access had been agreed and, after a while, very few solicitors would venture into the custody suite.
Lack of trust
There was generally seen to be a lack of trust and co- operation between the police and the defence. However, it was the police who had the upper hand as negotiations take place on police territory, with the defence being in a weak position to try and bring about change. In adopting a minimal response to police station legal advice, the advisers tended to concentrate on the offence rather than on the wider issues concerning their clients? detention. This meant that very rarely were representations made in relation to the grounds of detention, delays and other matters, even though custody sergeants often complained about such issues. Instead it seems that the defence have adopted a passive approach in this police station.
Both the police and the defence wanted to address the problems highlighted in the interim report and agreed to support the new arrangements for a second time. The Bridewell legal advice study phase II commenced on 9 July 2012 and an update will be provided shortly.
- Dr Vicky Kemp, Principal researcher, Legal Services Research Centre