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Thursday, 2 July 2009

Changes coming for criminal advocacy?

The Age today reported the OPP, Victoria Legal Aid and the County Court Law Reform Committee suggest that Victoria should have a Public Defenders Office, similar to that in NSW.

Public Defenders are salaried advocates who appear solely for accused people — a defence-equivalent to Crown Prosecutors.

The arguments for them were made in submissions to the Victorian Law Reform Commission's Jury Directions project. (The report is due to be tabled in Parliament soon, which might explain why the mainstream media is discussing it.)

One justification for them is to increase specialisation and expertise in increasingly complex criminal trials, minimising appeals resulting from issues that might have been raised by counsel at the original trial.

The use of in-house advocates is an increasing trend, both for reasons of cost, and quality.

The United Kingdom's Crown Prosecuting Service now has an assessment system for its prosecutors; the UK Legal Services Commissioner is piloting a quality assurance system (I'm not certain, but it might be similar to the Law Institute of Victoria's specialisation scheme); and even the UN and International Association of Prosecutors are endorsing minimum standards of conduct for prosecuting advocates.

There's no specific mention of any of this being applied in our summary jurisdiction. (The NSW Public Defenders Office typically appears in District and Supreme Courts, rather than Local Courts.) But perhaps any changes would reverberate in the summary courts. (I guess too that using Public Defenders rather than members of the self-employed Bar might alter the amount of legally aided work available for barristers.)

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