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April 5, 2018

We need to talk about Keres & Co

“Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken” is a great book. It sets out all the major problems facing the criminal justice system, many of which I’ve also touched on over the years. But Keres & Co was a shock even to me.

The Secret Barrister emphasises how great a service most defence solicitors offer. Barristers are often seen as the main advocates for defendants. But defence solicitors have the closer relationship, and will work for some clients over many years. They know their clients’ families, their foibles and their disabilities. They see them at times of great stress, and the best solicitors go the extra mile, way beyond what they are paid for.

But @barristersecret introduced me to Keres & Co. I had read about referral fees and knew that not all criminal solicitors resembled the passionate campaigners on my twitter feed. But this anonymised firm of jobsworths (“Keres & Co”) is a disgrace. Keres & Co gets work through employing fixers. “They know people who know people, and when there is an arrest for a serious offence, the fixer is the one dripping honeyed words into the ears of the criminal community elders to secure the opportunity to tout the defendant’s right to representation to the highest bidder”. Keres & Co take “bribes” – referral fees – from barristers in return for using them. All this is bad, but their treatment of their clients is worse.

The Secret Barrister says the firm does the minimum possible for their clients. Keres & Co try to get them to plead guilty, whatever the circumstances of the crime, and “wing it” if the defendant insists on going to trial. Good barristers try to compensate for the firm’s shortcomings but it is frequently not possible, so important is the solicitors’ role.

The Secret Barrister gives an example of a defendant she/he represented. Darius was very vulnerable – he had severe learning difficulties and was the abused product of a drinker (Mum) and a heroin addict (Dad).  He received no formal education and was barely able to communicate. When the Secret Barrister met him he had recently been released from a secure unit, having been sectioned under the Mental Health Act. Darius had been accused of stealing a five pound note from his father and was languishing on remand. Keres & Co had made little attempt to prevent him being remanded and he’d been inside for the best part of a month.

“The bastard Keres hadn’t bothered to visit Darius in prison, let alone tried to secure his vulnerable young client a place at a bail hostel. He hadn’t spoken to the CPS to try to persuade them against prosecuting in the very sad circumstances.  Darius, who had been advised to give a “no comment” interview, had not been asked to gives Keres any information as to what had happened that evening. Nothing of relevance, such as psychiatric or medical records had been obtained”. In the end, after Darius had spent nearly two months on remand, the CPS did drop charges, but only due to the diligence of the barristers concerned.

The Secret Barrister was so angry that he/she refused to work with Keres & Co in the future. They are apparently notorious for giving a lousy service to their clients. I have no idea what firm Keres & Co is.  But it worries me that there are clients walking through their doors today, who face serious charges but who have no idea that Keres & Co will not defend them properly. Keres & Co have a legal aid contract, so we the taxpayers are funding and, by implication, endorsing their service.

The continued existence of a few companies like Keres & Co suggests that there needs to be more accountability for legal aid. The Legal Aid Agency I think spot-checks the books and case files of solicitors they fund. The Solicitor’s Regulation Authority takes action against solicitors and firms who breach their principles. These are excellent and include “act in the best interests of each client” and “act with integrity”. But would Keres & Co’s clients know that they were being short-changed and could report the firm to the SRA? I doubt it. There is no active quality control and, it appears, no whistle-blowers.

The Secret Barrister does not mention any barristers who give poor service and who do the minimum for their clients, but they must exist. Unfortunately most people who get into trouble with the law have very little understanding of the law and can’t judge between an excellent and a mediocre advocate. We need some other way of rooting out the Keres & Cos of this world.