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Direct access to barristers ‘could improve justice outcomes’ for ethnic minorities

By Monidipa Fouzder >>

(17 December 2021)

Across-party thinktank has called on policymakers to review the process of legal advice for defendants from ethnic minorities – suggesting that solicitors could be left out of the process.   

The Social Market Foundation suggests the review in a briefing paper entitled ‘Earning trust: improving criminal justice outcomes for ethnic minorities’.

Government statistics for 2020 confirm significant racial disparities in the criminal justice system. People from ethnic minority groups were more likely to be remanded in custody at Crown court than white defendants. Since 2016 white defendants have had a consistently lower average custodial sentence length than other ethnic groups. A third of children in prison were black despite black prisoners accounting for only 13% of the entire prison population.

In his landmark 2017 race review, David Lammy MP highlighted defendants’ lack of trust in legal aid solicitors and recommended experimenting with different approaches to explain legal rights and options to defendants – such as earlier access to advice from barristers.

The foundation said: ‘The Lammy review called for greater experimentation in this area. It also called for defendants to receive earlier access to legal advice from barristers, rather than having to initially go through solicitors, in order to build trust with a single contact. It was suggested in our roundtable that this direct access route could be better publicised because awareness seems to be low at present.’

The foundation suggests policymakers consider promoting ‘direct access’ to barristers.

Other suggested steps include removing the requirement to plead guilty to be eligible for out of court disposals, which may require the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to be reworded. ‘Given the over-representation of ethnic minorities in drug convictions, low-level drug offences should be prioritised for such measures,’ the report says.

(Courtesy: The Law Society Gazette)