The Legal Aid Agency is believed to be compiling a list of lawyers willing to represent Crown court defendants as the Ministry of Justice insisted it was ‘business as usual’ in the courts despite an ongoing nationwide legal aid boycott by solicitors and barristers.
The MoJ told the Gazette that lawyers employed by the Public Defender Service had been despatched in a ‘small number’ of Crown court cases.
But it insisted courts were ‘continuing to sit as usual’ and said the vast majority of cases requiring a solicitor at the police station were being picked up within an hour.
This week firms across the country have reportedly been receiving calls from the agency asking if they would cover Crown court cases with unrepresented clients.
An LAA spokesperson told the Gazette it was ‘speaking to providers about how we can provide information on options for any clients who are seeking legal representation for Crown court hearings. This would not affect the allocation of police station own-client or duty work’.
Meanwhile, a judge at Leicester Crown Court has issued a temporary practice direction as a result of barristers adopting a ‘no returns’ policy.
The practice direction, from Leicester resident judge HH Judge Nicholas Dean QC (pictured), states that solicitors and counsel chambers must inform the List Office via email by 1.30pm if cases in the list for the following day are affected by the ‘no returns’ policy.
The email must include the date when the instructed counsel or advocate was instructed and available dates ‘for a period of six months commencing with the date of the email’.
For preliminary hearings, the court is ‘likely’ to continue to hear the case in the absence of legal representation.
‘The accused will be asked whether he seeks an adjournment but the court will not be bound by any request at that point,’ Dean states. ‘The court will ascertain the likely plea and give directions as if the defendant were represented.’
For plea and case management hearings, the defence statement should have been prepared by the instructed counsel or advocate in any event, Dean says.
‘The court is likely to continue to hear the case in the absence of legal representation. This may well include arraignment and fixing a trial date if the plea is not guilty.’
The practice direction states unrepresented defendants will be told about credit for plea, but the extent of any credit will be reserved until sentence.
One solicitor in Leicester told the Gazette the practice direction was worrying on some levels given, for instance, the prosecution needed to prove its case before a case could progress.
‘But at least we now know how [the judges] are going to deal with things… what they’re thinking,’ he said. ‘We can adapt accordingly as opposed to if we did not have any idea and we would be flying blind, which is not good from any perspective.’