In the Media

Legal advice helpline for suspects is in chaos because police don't answer the phone

PUBLISHED November 12, 2007

The head of a multi-million-pound legal advice helpline designed to speed up the criminal justice system has admitted it is in chaos.

Despite the scheme failing, the Government's ?10million-a-year call centre initiative will still be rolled out.

The Criminal Defence Services Direct helpline is designed to offer legal advice to people arrested for non-imprisonable offences instead of them using an independent solicitor paid for by legal aid or a police duty lawyer.

The helpline advisers are often former police officers who have passed the basic Police Station Qualification legal exam.

But the system relies on advisers calling police station custody suites and sometimes only half their calls are answered as phones are engaged or left ringing.

Ultimately, suspects end up agreeing to questioning without legal advice, according to CDS Direct head John Sirodcar.

The helpline, backed by former Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer, is part of the Government's bid to cut the ?2billiona-year legal aid bill.

It is expected to cost taxpayers ?10million a year but save ?10million compared with the old system.

But Mr Sirodcar said: "People are not getting their legal rights because police are not answering the phones."

From April next year, anyone requesting free legal advice when arrested for a minor crime, including first offences for drink-driving, criminal damage, theft or assault, will have to use CDS Direct.

It is expected to handle 17,000 cases a month.

Advisers are paid ?200 a shift and each case is estimated to cost taxpayers ?22, much less than the ?300 for a solicitor visiting a police station.

It works by a police officer phoning the call centre to book advice for the detainee.

An adviser calls the station back but then calls go unanswered.

During the pilot, Mr Sirodcar collected statistics showing how some police stations answered just half of all calls.

"It's a frustration," he said.

"We have been hammering the worst police stations. Something should be done about it."

Bridewell police station in Nottingham answered 1,194 of 2,383 calls. There, five custody sergeants and five civilian staff might have to handle up to 100 detainees at one time and answer six phones.

Inspector Andrew Rourke, who ran the custody suite until 15 months ago, said: "On a busy Friday night, you are not going to get that phone answered because all your staff is concerned with is that stream of people walking in."

Of the 629 police stations nationwide, a quarter of calls were unanswered.

In one case a legal adviser rang a London station at 2.18pm and there was no reply.

Four more attempts were made and the phone kept ringing.

Then at 3.10pm it was engaged and at 4.05pm the police phoned back to say the suspect no longer wanted legal advice. The adviser noted: "Client has been denied legal advice".

Shadow Justice Minister Henry Bellingham said: "I have absolutely no confidence in the system being able to cope."

The Police Federation said: "It highlights an under-resourced police service."