A leading criminal defence practice has launched what it claims to be the first ever training and accreditation scheme devoted to pre-charge engagement to ensure it is the ‘go-to’ firm for such work.
Toby Wilbraham, solicitor-advocate at Manchester and London firm Olliers Solicitors, said some of his clients had not been prosecuted because of his pre-charge representations, saving them the cost and stress of court proceedings.
Mr Wilbraham said the traditional approach to defending a client was seeing someone at the police station, followed by a “huge wait” for the police investigation and dealing with the results at court.
With pre-charge engagement, the moment the solicitor knows the client is being investigated, they carry out their own investigation alongside the police, co-operating at times and informing the police what they are doing.
Witnesses are interviewed and character references obtained to undermine the police case. Instead of receiving only a police file, with a recommendation, the Crown Prosecution Service receives a defence file to consider when deciding whether to charge the person.
“Everyone should do it,” Mr Wilbraham said. “The best point to attack a case, if you can, is the start, because it avoids the case going to court.”
The problem was funding, which was limited to an insufficient £250 in legal aid cases.
He said Olliers had moved from being a 100% criminal legal aid firm in the 1990s to doing only a minority of legal aid work – now making up about 30% of its caseload – as legal aid fees were frozen. All the pre-charge engagement cases he did were privately funded.
“It’s cheaper to fund the pre-trial stage than let the case go to trial. If, in the worst-case scenario, the case is prosecuted, you are pretty much prepared. “
He said his pre-charge work often related to sexual offences, domestic violence cases or those involving indecent images – all cases which had increased in number during Covid.
As the work “took off” during the pandemic, Olliers recruited 10 new staff to deal with it – taking the total to 45 – and Mr Wilbraham created the training scheme for new recruits. One of them has already passed the pre-charge accreditation scheme (PCAS), with the remaining nine studying for it.
PCAS uses a similar format to the profession-wide Police Station Representatives Accreditation Scheme (PSRAS) and is split into two parts.
The first part involves reading all relevant guidance documents and other materials, followed by a written and a practical exam “to ensure they have a good working knowledge of the subject”.
Lawyers who pass then shadow a colleague who specialises in pre-charge engagement before carrying out their own work – which is also shadowed internally.
“Some cases have not been prosecuted because of the representations I’ve made,” said Mr Wilbraham. “Criminal cases can go for years. This saves clients the stress and cost of court proceedings.”
Olliers managing director Matthew Claughton added: “The concept of pre-charge engagement is not new. For anyone facing any kind of criminal investigation, it is crucial that their legal representative is actively committed to a strategy involving early, proactive pre-charge engagement with investigators.
“Launching this scheme has provided an opportunity for to staff to progress in their roles. It’s so important to nurture the future generation of legal talent and by focusing on this area, we can ensure that we remain the go-to firm for pre-charge engagement.”
In a separate development, the Solicitors Regulation Authority has launched a consultation on “minor revisions” to the PSRAS, which it monitors.
These include updating standards used to assess the competence of individuals to reflect changes in the law, and the need for police station representatives to “identify and take reasonable steps to meet the needs of individuals who are vulnerable or from minority ethnic groups”.
The regulator said revised assessment guidelines would “provide greater clarity to organisations delivering the assessment and to candidates on how the assessment should be structured, delivered, and marked”.