CRIMINAL suspects could soon have the right to a solicitor being present during garda interviews under new laws being considered by the Government.
The move could provide a pre-trial boost for criminal suspects, especially those who are detained under strict laws – including drugs legislation – that allow inferences to be drawn from their silence during interviews.
But the reforms, which could cost some €5m a year to operate, could be a massive logistics headache for the vast majority of small legal firms who defend suspects. This is because the attendance of solicitors during garda interviews could clash with their need to attend other clients in court.
At present, people who are arrested have a constitutional right to "reasonable access" to a solicitor when in garda custody, in most cases receiving advice from a solicitor over the phone, and having a face-to-face meeting later if required.
But the courts, as recently as May of this year, have insisted that the right of reasonable access does not extend to the right to have a solicitor present during garda interviews.
The access to a lawyer scheme is being considered after the Government set up a working group to advise whether a system providing for the presence of a legal representative during garda interviews is needed.
Under the current Garda Station Legal Advice Scheme, some suspects are granted telephone and face-to-face meetings.
But the means-tested scheme is restricted to those in receipt of social welfare or earning less than €20,000 a year.
The working group, chaired by Dr Moling Ryan – former chairperson of the Legal Aid Board – considered the emerging international law, including planned changes in the EU Directive on Access to a Lawyer in Criminal Proceedings.
The directive is one of a number of new legal measures that has been set out in an EU Roadmap on Procedural Rights, which aims to set common minimum standards for suspects throughout the EU.
And the report of the working group said that legal developments in Europe indicate that it will become the norm for suspects to have the legal right to have a solicitor present during interviews.
The Law Society, the ruling body for solicitors, will consider the issue when its council meets this Friday. The society was not circulated with a draft of the working group's report, nor was its approval sought as to the content.