A Liberal Democrat peer has called for a review of the Public Defender Service (PDS), calling it a ‘total waste of public money’, as the Ministry of Justice seeks to grow the service's ranks.
The ministry this week advertised vacancies for a ‘small number’ of advocates - QCs and senior and junior higher court advocates - to work at the PDS, offering salaries between £46,036 and £125,000.
The job advertisement boasts ‘generous allowances’ for paid holiday, starting at 23 days a year; additional paid time off for public holidays; two and a half privilege days; a choice of pension schemes; paid paternity, maternity and adoption leave and free eye tests.
It follows the recent appointment of two QCs to the PDS’s ranks – Gregory Bull, formerly of London’s Red Lion Chambers and a former leader of the Wales & Chester Circuit and Alun Jenkins, from Queen Square Chambers in Bristol and London.
Hugh Barrett, the director of commissioning and strategy at the Legal Aid Agency, said the appointment of the pair with such ‘strong and experienced track records’ is proof of the PDS’s ‘continuing commitment to providing a high-quality defence service’.
But criminal barrister and Liberal Democrat peer Lord Carlile (pictured) condemned the ministry’s action.
He told the Gazette: ‘I’m shocked by the way the government is behaving. It is proposing to pay salaries that far exceed the amount paid in the legal aid sector, bearing in mind the additional benefits, such as paid holidays, secretaries, pensions and paid sick leave.’
He said the move will cause ‘great anger’ to the independent criminal bar, which faces swingeing fee cuts. Many barristers have refused to accept briefs in the most serious criminal cases under the reduced rates. The move to increase the capacity of the PDS will be seen by many as an attempt to get round the problem.
Speaking last year at the Bar Council’s annual conference, attorney general Dominic Grieve QC warned criminal barristers that if they refused to take on cases at the new rates, the ministry would ‘look elsewhere’ for advocates.
Carlile, who said his own view is that the PDS should be abolished, called for the recently appointed justice minister in the Lords - barrister Lord Faulks QC - to take a fresh look at the PDS to assess whether it is a ‘total waste of public money’.
The PDS, which was set up in 2001, has four offices – in Cheltenham, Darlington, Pontypridd and Swansea. Academic research in 2007 suggested the service is one and a half to two times as expensive as private practice.
Law Society chief executive Desmond Hudson said: 'It looks like the ministry is trying to find a way to break the dispute with advocates over fees. Bringing criminal defence services in-house isn’t sustainable or desirable. Evidence shows that solicitors in private practice offer substantially better value for money than solicitor services delivered through the PDS. We continue to make the case to the MoJ that the most effective way to safeguard the future of high quality criminal defence is by facilitating a diverse supplier base and a market underpinned by client choice.'