Own client v duty dog

The die is cast – the return of quality to criminal defence?

There is a huge difference between criminal clients, who choose their solicitors and those who instruct them through the national duty solicitor schemes. Own clients make their choice of firm for many reasons, including:

  • The reputation for high quality work
  • They have achieved ‘a result’ in the past
  • Their friends have had a good experience
  • The firm is their ‘family solicitor’

Law firms value own clients and it is a marketing essential that own clients are looked after. They belong to the firm – they are essentially the firm’s ‘own.’ Duty solicitor clients, on the other hand, select a firm because they do not have any other in mind. It is a choice of last resort.

Over the last 20 years, the rise and rise of firms based on a duty solicitor model has undermined the quality of criminal representation and advocacy. Because duty solicitors bring in clients, some firms pay them more than £1,000 a month just to ‘be on the books’ – the solicitor never sets foot in the office and often has a full-time job elsewhere. The firm has no incentive to nurture its clients and often the inexperienced client is none the wiser about the poor service received.

However, this will all end if the Ministry of Justice implements the response it published today (September 5) in response to the criminal legal Aid consultation: https://consult.justice.gov.uk/digital-communications/transforming-legal-aid

The proposed reforms will take place over almost two years. The most radical change will be the division of criminal law firms into those, who only carry out own client work and those, who have duty solicitor contracts. There will be about 570 duty contracts across England and Wales, leaving in the region of 1,000 firms doing their own client work.

The criteria for awarding duty solicitor contracts has been designed to suit larger firms, who the MOJ believe will be better able to absorb the 17.5 % reduction in fees in exchange for higher volumes of work. The link between individual duty solicitors and clients will finally be broken because the cases will be awarded to the firm.

These reforms will lead to a much higher quality of service among the own client firms, who will seek to not only retain their existing clients, but expand their client base through the excellence of the legal work they do and quality of the service they provide.

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