Birmingham solicitor Williamson & Soden is concerned that a new legal advice helpline, set up to assist people who are being held in custody, is performing so badly that it may actually be undermining their rights to legal representation.

The Criminal Defence Service Direct scheme (CDS Direct) provides non meanstested advice direct to members of the public who have been detailed by the police under suspicion of a minor criminal offence.

It is being piloted in readiness for a national launch from April.

Anyone who requests legal advice while at a police station will initially be obliged to speak to an "adviser" at a call centre - many of whom are former police officers - instead of being offered access to their own solicitor. Only if it is deemed necessary by the call centre adviser will the client's solicitor be contacted. The scheme is designed to reduce the time someone is held in custody and deliver advice more quickly, while also ensuring increased value for taxpayers' money.

However, criminal law specialist Regan Peggs says CDS Direct is failing because the advisers are finding that custody suite staff are simply not answering the telephone. As a consequence, suspects are eventually agreeing to be interviewed without having received legal advice. "What concerns us is that, in many cases, people will be denied justice because they often think it is best to stick to a 'no comment' answer when interviewed," said Mr Peggs.

"Unfortunately, this kind of approach will often undermine a potential defence."

Another issue is the fact that call centre advisers will not be aware of a suspect's background.