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Defendants will not face US-style fight for justice.

Byline: Neil Connor

Birmingham's first criminal public defender yesterday rejected claims that the new service could lead to a US-style two-tier legal system.

Lee Preston will head Birmingham's Public Defence Office, which opened yesterday, two months after the country's first office was launched in Liverpool.

For the first time, defence solicitors will receive salaries directly from the state, rather than receiving fees for individual cases which are often paid for by legal aid.

The scheme has been criticised by criminal lawyers who fear it will eventually import the worst elements of the US legal system, where those who cannot afford to pay private lawyers from their own pockets are forced to rely on public defenders who may be underpaid and overworked.

But Mr Preston, who has practised as a solicitor for 15 years in the Midlands, said the public defenders would have the resources to ensure a top-quality service.

He said: 'The only thing the same about the two systems is the name and the only reason we have used the name is because people will recognise it because they watch Ally McBeal , LA Law or NYPD Blue. We are paving the way for a new system in that we are the first of the public defenders in England and Wales, but the US system has got its criticisms that it is under-funded and the lawyers are not always the best lawyers available.

'But we are exceptionally well-funded and supported by the Legal Services Commission. Our incentive is to do the job properly. My colleagues and I have spent a long time making sure we have the quality lawyers and administration staff to do this.'

However, Ewen Smith, partner at Birmingham city centre-based Glaisyers solicitors, claimed public defenders led to a two-tier justice system where wealth determined the quality of defence a suspect received.

He said: 'It is ill-conceived, it is poor for the quality of justice and I do not think clients will trust the idea of a public defender.

'I think this Government is short-sighted because I do not believe they want to fund the public defender in the long term and this will leave it in the same disorganised state as the Crown Prosecution Service.

'And in time they will try to allow the public defender to have a monopoly and squeeze the private practices of legal aid. When it gets to that stage it will be like the US public defender and this will sadly create a two-tier system.'

Individuals seeking free representation will have a choice between a contracted private practice lawyer and a public defender. There is no legal requirement to use the public defender.

People who are arrested will be able to use a public defender from the point when they are being held in a police station, as they will be added to the duty solicitor rotas.

Steve Orchard, chief executive of the Legal Services Commission, which will run the new service, gave an assurance that it would only carry out a minority of criminal cases in relation to private practices.

He said: 'They will have a lot of competition from private firms and they will be getting no favours from anyone. People will choose solicitors the same way as they choose now. If they have a good solicitor they will choose them again, whether it be a public defender or a private practice.'

Fact File

There are three other Public Defence Offices in England and Wales - Liverpool, Middlesbrough and Swansea

The Liverpool office was the first to open on May 14 this year

They were established under the 1999 Access to Justice Act

Two more offices will be opening before April next year. It is not known where

The offices only deal with criminal cases and offer a full range of services from the police station to the Crown Court

The offices offer a round-the-clock service

The Birmingham office is based at 34 Colmore Circus. It can be contacted on 0121 237 6900

CAPTION(S):

Birmingham's first public defender, Lee Preston, at his city centre officePicture, JOHN JAMES
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Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jul 12, 2001
Words:677
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