A press release was issued by the Legal Services Commission to announce the publication of the final evaluation report:
The Public Defender Service (PDS) provides a better quality of service than private practice according to independent research published today. This finding is based on one of the largest and most detailed peer review evaluations of criminal defence services ever conducted.
In addition the research states that providing criminal advice services through an organisation directly employed by the state has no negative impact on the independence of the advice and representation provided to clients
The research was carried out by a team headed by Professors Lee Bridges of the University of Warwick and Avrom Sherr of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies in London. It was based on an analysis of the PDS during its first three years of operation, from 2001 to 2004. It showed that during this start-up period, when the PDS was building up its caseload, it had higher costs than other criminal defence providers in the same areas.
The PDS annual report 2005/06 also published today shows that the service has become more efficient since the research was carried out. It also shows the most successful PDS offices are in areas such as Cheltenham with limited supply and can add value by filling gaps in the market.
Gaynor Ogden, Head of Employed Services at the Legal Services Commission said:
"I welcome the findings of the research which shows that Public Defender Service has become an example of a good quality criminal defence supplier and has a lot to offer the Legal Services Commission as a test bed of service delivery and a role in informing policy.
"The research report is based on data collected early in the life of the PDS and we have come a long way since then in terms of growth, quality and cost. We have introduced a new management structure which has bought focus to performance and we have introduced innovative methods of delivery including developing our in-house higher court advocates.
"We now have an opportunity to make firm plans about the future of the PDS and how we can best offer quality, value-for-money services to clients. We expect to make an announcement about the future shape of the PDS soon."
Legal Aid Minister, Vera Baird added:
"This research shows very clearly that the PDS is independent and gives robust advice: public defenders advise people not to speak in police station interviews more frequently than private solicitors; and more PDS defendants than private solicitor defendants enter early guilty pleas, yet the PDS has an equivalent client conviction rate, thus sparing their victims further trauma. Clearly the PDS has a future."
It is the comments in bold type that has inspired me to give this blog post the title 'Utter rubbish'. The PDS does not provide value for money, it is a vastly more expensive service to fund when compared to solicitors in private practice. My understanding is that the costs per case for the PDS is some three times higher than a solicitors firm in private practice. Yes, the PDS may have a future if it is going to provide services in areas where private solicitors have stopped providing criminal defence services because the income they generated by legal aid fees was so small. Yes, the PDS may provide a quality service to defendants - and that may well be down to the fact that they have fewer cases to deal with than solicitors firms in private practice.
The Public Defender Service was an expensive project funded by government money. The government is currently telling solicitors like me that the legal aid budget cannot accommodate any more increases and that we will all have to do the same (or more) work for less money in the future. The government is also trying to force upon solicitors smaller fees for work at the Police Station and Magistrates Court (this is a slight generalisation, but an accurate one) whilst it is suggesting the expensive PDS should continue to grow. The government is being somewhat hypocritical with the press release.