Duty solicitor consultation response following the closure of Newark Custody Suite
Closure of Newark Custody Suite
Response to Consultation
This is the response of VHS Fletchers to the consultation paper released by the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) following the notification on 25 October 2017 of the closure of Newark custody suite with effect from 6 November 2017.
All Newark arrests from that date will be taken to and processed at Mansfield Custody Suite. The residents of Newark have already lost one public resource, that being the ability of the police station to process prisoners. There is a very real risk that they will lose another – detainees receiving advice from solicitors local to Newark.
The consultation document invites responses to three alternative revisions to the Newark and Mansfield Police Station Duty Solicitor Schemes. Only one of those appears to put the needs of those from Newark who are arrested first.
Since the consultation document was published there have been two important indications from the police which impact upon the proposals:
- Cases that are identified as Newark cases will continue to be charged and either bailed or held to appear at Nottingham Magistrates’ Court rather than Mansfield Magistrates’ Court.
- The police will continue to contact the Newark Duty Solicitor Scheme in cases which are identified as “Newark arrests” and will ensure that the Duty Solicitor Call Centre (“DSCC”) is informed in all cases where the detainee was arrested for an offence committed in Newark.
It follows from these indications that Mansfield custody suite is able to and intends to identify cases that have historically been dealt with at Newark police station. As a result, they should be able to direct those who seek the advice of a duty solicitor to a firm local to Newark.
The proposed options for changes to the scheme can be summarised as follows:
- That the Newark Police Station Duty Scheme is merged with the Mansfield Police Station Duty Scheme with effect from 1 January 2018 with members of an extended Mansfield scheme covering both Mansfield and Newark police stations.
- That the Newark Police Station Scheme is retained as a separate scheme and Duty Solicitors on the Newark rota will be directed by the DSCC to attend at Mansfield police station.
- Newark Police Station Scheme retained as a separate scheme and firms post 1 January 2018 can elect to join either the Mansfield police station duty rota or standalone Newark scheme (if retained under option 2)
The LAA have helpfully indicated that they prefer option 1. The reason given is that options 2 and 3 are reliant upon the police being able to identify to the DSCC “Newark cases”. A more cynical view might be that the LAA and DSCC would have one less scheme to administer under option 1, resulting in an inevitable reduction in administration costs.
Fortunately, since the consultation document was published, the police have set out their intention to continue to identify Newark cases at the point of arrest and charge.
As a result, there appears to be no requirement for option 1 to be adopted unless there are ulterior motives on behalf of the LAA.
VHS Fletchers supports Option 2 for the following reasons:
This firm’s investment in Newark
When new legal aid contracts were to be awarded this firm chose to apply for a contract for a new Newark office. The closure of Newark custody suite was not anticipated. The office is staffed with two crime solicitors local to Newark – Ian Carter and Barbara McDonnell. We have since recruited a further Newark based lawyer – Legal Executive Advocate Nikki Carlisle – signalling a clear indication to continue to develop our business there.
Of course, we are in business. The rationale behind the investment that we make in training and recruitment of duty solicitors is that they provide access to new work through the duty solicitor rotas. Option 3 supports those firms who, like us, have chosen to locate their offices in Newark in order to provide legal aid services to that particular community.
Newark deserves its own duty solicitor rota
Newark-on-Trent is the largest urban area within the Newark and Sherwood District. It has a population of just over 37 000 residents. Of the three firms in Newark that currently undertaking criminal Legal Aid work, only our firm has office both in Mansfield and Newark.
Should Option 1 be adopted, Newark residents who are detained at Mansfield police station may very well be represented by a duty solicitor from a firm who only has an office in Mansfield. It is understandable that suspects will usually choose to have continuity of representation. This might be either whilst they remain on police bail, under investigation or following charge when the matter appears at court.
Prohibitive journey times
However, in seeking continuity, such clients would face a journey of 20 miles simply to see their solicitor to give instructions and take advice. By car that journey takes between 40 and 50 minutes. By public transport this time rises to 1 hour and 30 minutes for a single journey.
The same situation will of course arise in relation to residents of Mansfield who are represented by a duty solicitor who only has an office in Newark. It is true that many of those that require the services of criminal legal aid solicitors are vulnerable themselves and on a low income that would make such a journey very difficult.
It is our view that it is both unreasonable and unconscionable to expect those being investigated for criminal offences to have a return journey of three hours simply to see their solicitor. This stress and expense would be imposed on top of the emotional burden that the investigation of proceedings impose on any individual.
Local legal aid solicitors should be supported
Option 2 supports those criminal legal aid firms who have chosen to locate their offices in Newark. This is in order to provide legal aid services to that community. It would mean that the arrangements within Option 2 could commence immediately following the closure of the Newark Custody Suite. Newark based firms would not have to suffer the inevitable financial hardship of not having access to Duty Solicitor work for a period of two months.
Such a decision would be seen as supportive of a legal aid provider base that it is acknowledged is financially fragile.
Perverse consequences of merging two duty schemes
The perverse consequences of Option 1 would be to permit automatic access to Newark residents requesting the duty solicitor to firms solely based in Mansfield. Access to such Mansfield residents would be granted to firms solely based in Newark.
Whilst some firms may see there is a financial advantage in having a place on a merged duty scheme following the closure of Newark custody suite, this would be to ignore the needs of local Newark residents. Financial advantage should never be allowed to outweigh the impact on those we represent and assist who are often ill-equipped to represent themselves.
On this basis, Options 2 and 3 would be unattractive and unacceptable to clients where the duty solicitor may or may not be based geographically convenient to them.
An increase in LAA costs?
The LAA will have to budget for increased travel claims from Newark firms to Mansfield custody suite following the closure of Newark custody suite. An additional consequence is likely to be that the LAA has to fund more instances of advice and assistance in the police station. It seems likely that clients, once they discover where their duty solicitor is based, will want to transfer to a local firm. Where the duty solicitor has been instructed a second fee may be properly claimable by the second local firm nearer to a suspects home address
Clients to choose for themselves
Following the closure of Newark custody suite, if clients wish to choose a geographically distant firm then that must be a matter for them. To have a geographically distant firm inflicted upon them is a separate matter that should be avoided where possible. The risk of a reduction in access to justice must be apparent to all who consider the issue. The problem would be avoided by the adoption of Option 2.
Instruct a Newark crime solicitor
Despite the closure of Newark custody suite, the best way to ensure that you instruct a solicitor local to you if you are a Newark resident is to make sure you ask for VHS Fletchers if you are arrested and detained by the police. We offer free and independent legal advice on 01636 614013, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks of the year.
If you know the police want to speak to you, contact us and we will be able to make the necessary arrangements for you to be interviewed.
Should you face proceedings at either the Magistrates’ or Crown Court then we will see you at our Newark office to take your instructions and give you expert advice.
Please use the contact form below if you wish to email your enquiry.