Duty calls

In the cells with a duty solicitor

Julian Hopley is celebrating a big piece of work he won last Friday night. “A throat-slashing robbery,” he chuckles. “An absolute classic.” It’s not just the blood that excites Hopley, a legal aid lawyer – it’s the fees. That weekend, Hopley earned a tidy £1,000.

In one of London’s seediest areas, a woman selling drugs stopped a minicab driver. Before he had exchanged more than two words with her, a bodyguard stepped in with a knife, followed by a gang of nine men and three women, who dragged the cabbie down an alley, beat him to the ground, slashed his throat and stole his wallet.

Five members of the gang were arrested the following morning. Hopley ended up advising three of them. After popping to Bedfordshire for a few hours, he was back in the London police station on Sunday at 10am. Until 4pm he listened to his new client’s account of what had happened, then steered them through the police interviews.

Station advice, he stresses, is no small matter. Hopley reckons it is just as important as proceedings in court, because when cases come to court, a newly appointed defence lawyer will commonly suggest that the duty solicitor gave bad advice. Hopley fears that the recent changes to the right to silence will make this gambit even more popular. But on this occasion, he was pleased with his work and, as he remembers it, the throat-slashing clients were happy too.

And yet the following Monday morning he arrived at court to find that two of the detainees had dropped him for another solicitor. “I had looked after them all weekend. It’s not that I want to be patted on the back,” he pleads with some passion, “but they just leave you. They treat you like a tart.”

Anyone who has been arrested – however wealthy – can call out a duty solicitor. On arrest, detainees are asked if they want legal advice. If they do, but do not have their own lawyer, the custody sergeant telephones the national duty solicitor service – run by the Automobile Association since the system was put out to tender in 1992. The AA calls the individual solicitor on duty in the relevant area, relaying details of the offence, the name of the detainee, and where he or she is held. During the day, cases are given to the first lawyer on the list, whose name then goes back to the bottom. At night, a single individual must deal with every case. Sometimes telephone advice is sufficient, but occasionally that solicitor will take the case through to magistrate’s court and beyond.

Having no family in the law, Hopley left school with just one CSE (in metalwork) and did not qualify as a lawyer until he was 26. Now 41, he sports red, game-show-host spectacles and heavy Dr Marten shoes. He stands out from the crowd in other ways too. Although he is just one of hundreds of duty solicitors in London (many of them, like him, sole practitioners), he is administrator of one of the highest-profile schemes in the country, the City of London.

Working from the fourth floor of an office in Clerkenwell, he’s assisted by one legal executive and two secretaries. He bought the building in the late 1980s, with support from his bank, and thanks to substantial contributions from tenants downstairs the property is a minimal overhead. Which is good, because the money he makes as a duty solicitor does not always amount to much. During the day, a duty solicitor earns £46.50 an hour. At night, the standby rate is just £3.55, so in the – admittedly unlikely – event that nobody calls him during a 15-hour shift, from 6.00pm to 9.00am, he will earn just £53.25. For travelling waiting and attending clients, the night-rate rises to £57.50 an hour. (The Legal Aid Board, which administers the scheme, also pays for hotel accommodation.)

An office in the City can bring in financially rewarding spin-off work, such as white-collar fraud. In one recent case, Hopley advised a foreigner charged with fraud involving cash deposit certificates worth $2.5m. A few years ago, he was visited by a partner in a top-five London law firm who was worried about being hauled in by the Serious Fraud Office, in one of its biggest inquiries. Although that never happened, Hopley still picked up a cheque for advice on police station procedure. And on the scheme, Hopley remembers with some regret, “We had the Maxwell boys, but they didn’t want the duty solicitor.”

The number of police stations on a scheme varies according to the jurisdiction of the local magistrates court. Two stations, Snow Hill and Bishopsgate, service the City of London magistrate’s court. But Hopley has seen inside a lot more stations than just those two. Something of a workaholic, he is registered on no fewer than five schemes, the others being Clerkenwell, Highbury Corner, Old Street and Thames.

Tonight, he’s lined up for a 15-hour shift on the Clerkenwell scheme. At 6pm, the shift begins. Sitting in his office, he switches on his mobile phone, with an apology. “I don’t like portables. They make you look like a criminal. All my clients have one.”

Hopley is on duty about four times a month. Until recently, this hectic schedule caused little disturbance, as his Islington home was in easy reach. But now that he has moved his young family to Bedfordshire, shifts mean booking into a hotel – the Great Northern, at the heart of seedy King’s Cross. “Staying a whole weekend can be boring and lonely,” he laments.

At 7.35pm, scarcely installed at the Great Northern, Hopley is called to attend Holborn police station. A man has been arrested in a dispute between neighbours. The charge is criminal damage. Hopley, to whom the appropriate jargon comes easily, gives the police an optimistic “ETA” (estimated time of arrival) and leaps into his gleaming black Vauxhall Lotus – a boy-racer’s dream complete with spoilers at the back. Hopley admits that an impressive “motor” lends a certain cachet when visiting clients in “the slammer”.

In the brightly lit charge room – two desks surrounded by cell doors – the red-bearded arresting officer explains the case. The prisoner, he says, had previously been cautioned about his dispute with neighbours, and told to leave the area. But tonight he threw a hammer through the neighbour’s window.

As they talk, another prisoner – or, as Hopley would have it, “detainee” – is led to his cell after handing his possessions to the desk sergeant. Another, looking extremely ill, emerges from his cell with the station doctor. He is off to have his stomach pumped, having overdosed on paracetemol.

Hopley ushers his client – a short, bespectacled, nervously smiling man in a cardigan – into the interview room. Offering advice in here is something of a luxury. More often than not, Hopley is locked inside a dim cell with clients, commonly “strange people who can be under the influence of drink or drugs”. He takes plenty of pens with him, preferring not to take them back after some clients have touched them. The cells, he says, are awful. In particular, he’s always careful to avoid the blue Metropolitan Police mattresses and blankets on which people have “urinated, or even wiped shit”. Despite these precautions, he picks up fleas roughly once a month.

After some minutes, he emerges from the interview room to call in the arresting officer. The formal interview takes 20 minutes. When it is over, two tapes recording the questions and answers are wrapped under seal as evidence.

Back in the charge room, in front of the prisoner, the sergeant ostentatiously asks Hopley if he wants to “make any representations”. Which Hopley does. Then he takes his client to one side again, driving home the gravity of the charge, and advising him to move house. With the police caution and the solicitor’s warning still ringing in his ears, the mild-looking detainee is released.

Before Hopley leaves, the police urge him into a cell to talk to an illegal immigrant. Locked up for 24 hours now, she is frantic. But Hopley can do nothing – her deportation order is already signed. The total time spent on this call is one hour and 35 minutes. The fee: £91.

At 9.10pm, Hopley leaves the station to grab a pizza. The visit to Holborn, he rages, was an utter waste of time. The police were just using him to drive home their caution.

The feeling is not altogether new. Clients commonly distrust Hopley because they regard him as an arm of the police. “One guy I had advised shouted at the police from his cell that he had told me the truth and added that if I told them anything else he would sue me.” Having finished his meal, he returns to the hotel at 10.10pm and goes straight to bed.

At midnight, woken by a call from the Automobile Association – which has run the system since it was put out to tender in 1992 – Hopley is told to phone Holborn station again, where a man has been arrested on a fraud charge. On calling the station, Hopley is told the man does not want the duty solicitor. So he gets no fee, not even the flat rate for offering advice over the phone.

At 2.00am, he is woken again. Hampstead police have arrested four youths for burglary. One, aged 16, requires telephone advice and might possibly need Hopley again if a formal interview takes place. Fee: £20.50.

Half an hour later, Holborn police arrest a businessman on a drunk-and-disorderly charge. There is little point turning up at the station. The man is indignant, but Hopley tells him to sit quiet and go to sleep. “He’ll be cautioned later,” he says, turning off his light. Fee: £20.50.

Holborn is getting all the action. At 3.00am, there’s another cal: a juvenile has been arrested for criminal damage to a bus stop. “It’s a dog’s life,” moans Hopley, frustrated by more “rubbish”. He falls asleep before calling the station, getting a slightly abusive reminder at 4.00am. In the meantime, the police have found five bags of cannabis on the boy, and decided to search his home before conducting the interview. The case may escape Hopley. “After the shift is over, someone else might get him,” Hopley mutters, half asleep. “It’s dog eat dog, feeding for the legal aid scraps.”

The bitterest blow comes at 7.30am. The AA calls about an arrest at Kentish Town, but while the bleary-eyed Hopley takes down the details, the station calls to cancel. No fee.

The next morning, surrounded by tourists in the Great Northern’s dining room, Hopley calculates that he needs 16 new cases a month to covers staff costs and overheads. Or five really big cases a year. Big cases can bring fees of up to £20,000 each. On this shift, just one call promises any further work: the juvenile with drugs. The prospect brings a renewed twinkle to his eyes. “On the scheme you can pick up some low-key juvenile shoplifting,” he explains, “but one day that kid might turn out to be an armed robber. You watch people grow up, young people’s criminal careers develop.” The admission causes him no embarrassment: 40 per cent of Hopley’s work comes from repeat offenders. “It’s business. I’m not a charity!” he pleads.

At 9.30, while Hopley tucks into his All-Bran, the phone rings in his pocket. Holborn station has bad news: the boy has chosen another solicitor. After a night away from his family, Hopley has picked up no new clients. In all, he has earned £179. “I can’t take a day off for this crap,” he reflects.

A friend of Hopley, Mark Stephens of Stephens Innocent, knows the feeling. Stephens loses money every time he does the scheme, and only does it to salve his social conscience. But Hopley, who used to do voluntary work at Citizens Advice Bureaux, still regards the scheme first and foremost as “a very important source of work and new clients”.

Despite the exhausting night, Hopley retains deep reserves of enthusiasm. Pulling back from his fried breakfast, he makes huge rowing motions with his knife and fork. “As long as you keep battling away – like the Olympic rowers, Redgrave and Pinsent,” he pants between strokes, “you will be alright.” The performance draws puzzled looks from nearby tables, so he leans forward to confide more quietly: “Crime does pay – but I’m not in a position where I can afford to stop.”