Closure of Newark Custody Suite – Newark duty solicitor scheme to remain
This was 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. The suggestion was to merge the Newark duty solicitor scheme with the Mansfield scheme.
All Newark arrests from that date are taken to and processed at Mansfield Custody Suite. The residents of Newark had already lost one public resource, that being the ability of their police station to process prisoners. There was a very real risk that they would lose another – detainees receiving advice from solicitors local to Newark under the Newark duty solicitor scheme.
The consultation document invited responses to three alternative revisions to the Newark duty solicitor scheme and Mansfield scheme. Only one of those appeared to put first the needs of those from Newark who are arrested.
After the consultation document was published there were two important indications from the police that impacted upon the proposals:
- Cases that were identified as Newark cases would continue to be charged and either bailed or held to appear at Nottingham Magistrates’ Court rather than Mansfield Magistrates’ Court.
- The police would continue to contact the Newark Duty Solicitor Scheme in cases which are identified as “Newark arrests” and would ensure that the Duty Solicitor Call Centre (“DSCC”) was informed in all cases where the detainee was arrested for an offence committed in Newark.
It followed from these indications that Mansfield custody suite was able to and intended to identify cases that had historically been dealt with at Newark police station. As a result, they would 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 could be summarised as follows:
- That the Newark Police Station Duty Scheme was 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 was retained as a separate scheme and Duty Solicitors on the Newark rota would 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 could elect to join either the Mansfield police station duty rota or standalone Newark scheme (if retained under option 2)
The LAA indicated that they preferred option 1. The reason given was that options 2 and 3 were 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 set out their intention to continue to identify Newark cases at the point of arrest and charge.
As a result, there appeared to be no requirement for option 1 to be adopted unless there were ulterior motives on behalf of the LAA.
VHS Fletchers supported 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 have been 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 would of course have arisen in relation to residents of Mansfield who were represented by a duty solicitor who only had 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 was our view that it was 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 might 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 have been to permit automatic access to Newark residents requesting the duty solicitor to firms solely based in Mansfield. Access to such Mansfield residents would have been granted to firms solely based in Newark.
Whilst some firms may have seen there to be a financial advantage in having a place on a merged duty scheme following the closure of Newark custody suite, this would have been 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 have been unattractive and unacceptable to clients where the duty solicitor may or may not have been 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 might have been that the LAA had to fund more instances of advice and assistance in the police station.
It seemed likely that clients, once they discovered where their duty solicitor was based, would want to transfer to a local firm. Where the duty solicitor had 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 was a separate matter to be avoided where possible. The risk of a reduction in access to justice was apparent to all who considered the issue. The problem would be avoided by the adoption of Option 2.
Outcome of the Legal Aid Agency Consultation into the Newark Duty Solicitor scheme
The majority view of those who responded to the consultation was that the Newark Police Station Scheme be retained as a separate scheme. This is to be adopted by the Legal Aid Agency.
Duty solicitors on the Newark duty solicitor scheme will continue to be directed by the Duty Solicitor Call Centre (DSCC) to attend Mansfield Police Station upon the identification of a Newark detainee.
The police have confirmed that they will send out a further instruction to all the staff at Mansfield to make sure that they correctly identify with the DSCC suspects who fall under the Newark scheme. Although errors may occur, the police will actively monitor the position.
As a result, the Legal Aid Agency will issue a Newark rota for the period from January to March 2018. This will be subject to additional monitoring and review in late January or early February 2018 to consider if any changes are needed from April 2018 for the following six month rota.
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.
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.
You can also contact us by using the form below.