The Ministry of Justice is to expand the Public Defender Service – but not in response to the now suspended legal aid boycott, the Gazette has been told.
The PDS, a department of the Legal Aid Agency which employs around 28 solicitors and normally operates from offices in Cheltenham, Darlington, Pontypridd and Swansea.
The ministry is advertising for duty solicitors in South Wales, North Yorkshire, County Durham and Gloucestershire.
An advertisement on the government’s website states that PDS operations ‘provide a critical safeguard against market failure across England and Wales, thereby ensuring the LAA fulfils its statutory responsibility to ensure continuous access to justice’.
Applicants will need to have two years’ post-qualification experience and be ‘assertive, a good listener, astute and full of energy’. They will also require a full driving licence ‘and use of a motor vehicle’. Salaries range from £31,116 to £40,625.
A spokesperson for the Legal Aid Agency told the Gazette the recruitment was planned as part of crime contract arrangements, ‘which were subject to government consultation from 2013’.
The government is currently assessing bids for 527 contracts to provide 24-hour police station cover from January 2016. Firms will be notified of the outcome next month.
‘The Transforming Legal Aid consultations held in 2013 and 2014 included proposals for the PDS to be allocated a share of the crime contracting work in each of the areas it is currently established,’ the spokesperson said.
‘This recruitment of six new duty solicitors will manage additional volumes of work in some areas under the new crime contracts starting in January.’
The agency confirmed it will recruit three duty solicitors in County Durham and North Yorkshire ‘as the increased workload under the new contract will be distributed over a wider geographical area’. Two posts will be created in South Wales and one in Gloucestershire.
Two ‘small’ offices will be set up in Durham and Harrogate.
‘Opening small offices is more cost-effective when measured against travel time and costs from the existing Darlington PDS office,’ the spokesperson said.
Bill Waddington, chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association, told the Gazette he was ‘very concerned’ to hear of the recruitment drive ‘at this particularly sensitive time’.
‘Firms who have bid in these areas will no doubt be horrified to learn that there is to be a new provider in town, a provider who will not have to squeeze through the hoops of the tender and will clearly affect the work available to them and on which they based their tender.’
The ‘anti-competitive’ recruitment drive, Waddington said, meant the PDS could recruit before everyone else because its contracts were ‘guaranteed’.
‘If this were a rugby game, the crowd would be shouting in unison “offside”,’ he said.
Jon Black, president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association, said any recruitment process ‘should be concurrent so as to enable private practice firms to compete for the same candidates as the PDS, despite the significantly generous packages the PDS appear to be able to afford’.