The impact of good or bad criminal legal representation can be life-changing. Defendants can end up entering the wrong plea, getting convicted when they were innocent or receiving a much more punitive sentence than their offence merited.
Our research into the quality of criminal legal services found it to be a mixed bag. We asked criminal defendants about their experiences. Some spoke well of lawyers who communicated with them regularly and proactively, and gave clear advice about options:
Mine messages me on Facebook, ‘you’ve got to do this…let me know you’re reading my messages. Let me know what date you’ve got to go back to the police station’
My solicitor gave me things to think about so I can make that decision. He advised me what the best option is, but it was still left for me to tell him whether I want to go guilty or not guilty.Defendant
But we heard negative experiences too, which do not seem to have been addressed. In new research by the charity Revolving Doors, criminal court defendants reported changes in assigned solicitors, irregular and/or impersonal communication, and legal representatives not answering questions or taking the time to explain what was happening:
“It felt like they had more important things to worry about. Brushing me off when I did ask questions. Told me to send things across and we will deal with it, but they didn’t do so.”
It’s not a surprise that the quality of criminal legal services is variable. Competition doesn’t work to drive up quality, because defendants rarely have the necessary information at hand to judge the quality of different firms – it’s a “blind choice”, as one defendant told us. It’s also difficult to switch lawyer if you’re unhappy; some defendants don’t even realise that switching lawyer is possible.
The long-term trend to lower criminal legal aid fees has also made it harder for firms to do a good job for their clients. Jonathan Black, president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association at the time, said in our report’s afterword that current criminal legal aid rates were “becoming unfeasible for firms who pride themselves on high quality provision”, leading to the rise of “firms which put profit before those they represent.”Sir Christopher Bellamy’s recent review of criminal legal aid found rates were about one third less than they were 13 years ago. These significant funding issues have only partly been addressed through recent government proposals for criminal legal aid fee uplifts.
One solution is to encourage legal representatives to give greater credence to client feedback. Firms providing criminal legal aid are required to have in place a way to gather and analyse client feedback. But this often just amounts to a text message sent to clients at the end of their case, generating very few responses which lawyers don’t pay much attention to: “It’s about the most meaningless form you’ve ever come across.”(defence lawyer)
Lawyers worry that defendants’ feedback would be entirely coloured by the outcome of their case: “nearly all of [the responses] are outcome-driven rather than reflective in terms of the quality of the service. You know, I got off: good, I went to prison: bad. I really don’t see anyone within the criminal justice system reflecting on the quality of service that they’re provided and giving objective and articulate feedback.” (defence lawyer)
But recent LSB research says otherwise, concluding that “in the end, people’s experiences depend less on the result, and more on how legal professionals respond to their vulnerability”. It’s possible that some feedback might be biased but many defendants understand that the lawyer has limited ability to influence the outcome of each case. Anyway, feedback can be gathered from many quarters, not just clients.
Research shows professionals best develop through getting and reflecting on regular feedback. If we want to improve the quality of legal services and to strengthen confidence in the legal system, the client’s perspective shouldn’t be overlooked.
First published in September 2022 in the Reshaping Legal Services blog.
Interested in hearing more about the experience of victims in the criminal justice system? Listen to our recent podcast episode on this topic asking ‘What do victims of crime want?’. Hosts Penelope and Rob are joined by Lucy Jaffé, Director of the charity Why me? and Darryn Frost, who witnessed the terror attack on London Bridge in 2019 and helped restrain the attacker until police arrived. The episode discusses the ways in which the justice system fails victims, and what could be done to truly empower people affected by crime, give them a voice in the aftermath, and help resolve the harm they’ve experienced.