Just over 20 years ago, I walked into an office of a senior partner of a well known North West London high street practice for a job interview. My interviewer, a bearded man, surrounded by orange files was finishing a telephone call, it was clear from the conversation that he was discussing with a member of the local probation service the content of a pre sentence report (known as a social enquiry report back then); they discussed at length the merits of various disposals on offer. The client was receiving a bespoke service. My interviewer paused after he put the phone down to write an attendance note of the call, for which he would be paid. He looked up and I said, as someone who had only received instructions as a pupil barrister that was not aware that this sort of liaison went on behind the scenes. Greg Powell turned to me and said, we do it because we are good at what we do.
In the 1990s I attended training sessions where I was taught that the best advocacy you could do for your client is through liaison with the probation officers. Defence lawyers and probation officers have always worked well together realistically mindful of the limits of our clients, this is despite successive governments’ mad cap proposals to revamp the service. Does anyone recall the Home Secretary who wanted to bring in ex army officers to train as probation officers because they thought the current batch were too soft on offenders?
This theme has continued through the establishment of NOMS; the low threshold for prosecuting breaches and now we have the current proposals for these services to be run not by publicly accountable bodies but private business interests. It is of no coincidence that there has been a series of pieces published in The Evening Standard attacking the probation service. In one such article a mother of a young rioter explained how she supported her son upon release from prison, having not received any communication from the probation service; he was recalled because he did not keep his first post release appointment with his probation officer. Apparently the letter was sent to the wrong address. This, and an apparent inability to rehabilitate “revolving door offenders”, according to the Standard makes the current system not fit for purpose.
So one can conclude that the system does need more resources, it needs funding, who best to fund it says the government? Private enterprise, rewarded by results. How will this work? Will there be a white board in every probation office where the officers get to ring a bell once they score another "clean" drug test to add to their bonus tally. Perhaps they could reward the probation providers for the speed of the fast delivery reports... results pay.
The MOJ withdrew the perverse incentive scheme to reward lawyers for early guilty fee cases, but you could see where this was going, with a model of legal aid practice that considered clients as commodities and not individuals. The current proposals are still aimed at cheap provision rewarding fast turnover of cases and are still attractive to non legal organisations who will squeeze high street firms out of the market, putting profit before people...results pay.
Solicitors, Barristers and Probation officers, need to come together on 31st March and 1st April to demonstrate that we make up the engine room of the Criminal Justice System. The relationship between the probation service and the defence community has always been one of co-operation in the interests of our clients and the court system. Adequate funding of both areas will lead to more efficient offender management. This spirit of cooperation will go once the public service ethos has been stripped out of defence and probation work. - Next year, or the year after , there will be no liaison between defence and probation , there will be no discussion re the content of the report, Greg Powell won't know which call centre desk the triage probation officer will be sitting at , and it will be outside the - " offender manager’s " cost plan to seek out the “customer's” solicitor. The government once again prioritises the price of everything but the value of nothing.
This article was written by Jonathan Black, Vice President of the LCCSA and partner at BSB Law.