The Ministry of Justice was tight-lipped this week over the response to its advertisement to boost the Public Defender System, insisting the recruitment drive was not related to the criminal bar’s boycott of serious cases.

The deadline for applications for a ‘small number’ of advocates, with salaries between £46,036 and £125,000, passed last week.

The ministry would not divulge the number of applications it had received and would not confirm speculation that around 35 had applied.

A spokesman said the advertisement had received a ‘high level of interest’. He was unable to confirm how many advocates the PDS is seeking to recruit or the budget that had been allocated. ‘The exact number appointed will depend on the quality of the applications received and evolving caseloads,’ he said.

The recruitment drive coincides with a refusal by the majority of criminal barristers to undertake the most serious cases, following a 30% cut in fees.

The ministry denied that the recruitment exercise was a response to the bar’s action, insisting the PDS, which has been in place for 10 years, has ‘consistently evolved’ with the appointment of David Aubrey QC as head of advocacy last year.

The spokesman said: ‘The public would expect us to take steps to ensure the PDS can provide high-quality defence advocacy where it needs to – that is what we are doing.’

In addition to Aubrey, the service employs two other silks – Greg Bull and Alun Jenkins – plus seven solicitor-advocates, operating from four regional offices.

Seven very high cost cases governed by the reduced rates are listed for trial this year, but the Legal Aid Agency would not divulge the charges or court locations. The Gazette has previously reported that two of the cases are at Southwark Crown Court and a third is listed at Birmingham.

A fourth is understood to be listed in Nottingham.

Nigel Lithman QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, said the fact that advocates have applied to join the PDS shows the ‘desperation’ felt by certain individuals at the bar.