Police station detainees could access criminal legal advice quicker under Legal Aid Agency proposals to modernise its telephone helpline.
The agency is looking into ‘possible digitisation’ of its Duty Solicitor Call Centre (DSCC).
DSCC provides 24-hour access all-year round to criminal legal advice for people detained and/or scheduled to be interviewed by the police. Depending on the details of the request, a call centre adviser contacts either the detainee’s requested defence solicitor or a duty solicitor.
The centre handles around 800,000 cases a year.
The LAA told the Gazette it was ‘committed to constantly improving the services’ it offered, ‘including looking at how possible digitisation might benefit users of [the call centre].
‘Any development of a digital service would involve engagement, research and testing with providers’.
It said no decision had been made on possible changes or timescales, but a telephone-based service would continue to be available.
The Law Society said it supported the initiative ‘in principle’. Richard Miller (pictured), the Society’s head of legal aid, said the current system introduces ‘unnecessary delay’.
‘Last year we called for the LAA to look at a modernised telephony system to deal with duty calls. What they are doing is not quite what we proposed, but if it works as we understand it is intended to, we believe it should address some of the problems with the current setup and save money for the [agency] as well.’
Last year the Society proposed an automated telephony system which would enable the police to dial a single number and be put through direct to the relevant duty solicitor.
Miller said the Society’s main concern was that the new digital service should reduce time spent in making contact with the police station and not create any additional expense for solicitors.
‘In moving to digital notification, and in order to not create extra work for defence practitioners, it is extremely important that the data itself can be available as an output and be capable of being imported by solicitors’ systems.’
The Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association said for many years it had proposed the DSCC be replaced with a ‘cheaper and more efficient alternative’.
CLSA chair Bill Waddington said: ‘If this move to digitisation helps to cut costs, saving the taxpayer money and helping the Ministry of Justice make the cuts it is so desperate to make without further impeding on the legal aid budget, we are very much in favour.’
London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association president Jonathan Black said: ‘As an active duty solicitor we often answer initially from call centre operatives who then text us the details in any event’.
Black said the association welcomed the news ‘as long as this is not a thin end of a wedge leading to digital attendances at police stations.
‘The actual presence of a solicitor at a police station is vital for the suspect, vulnerable or not, who requests such assistance’.