The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is to end the practice of allowing trainee solicitors to obtain higher rights of audience (HRA) but has reversed course on its proposed approach to advocacy in the youth courts.
This means youth court advocates will not need higher rights when acting in a case which would have gone to the Crown Court if an adult was involved – an idea that attracted significant opposition during consultation.
Outlining the way forward on advocacy standards, the regulator said concerns expressed about the quality of advocacy provided by some solicitors were “persistent but largely anecdotal”.
Its research showed that only 1% of law firms, 0.6% of private practice solicitors and 1% of in-house solicitors had ever reported poor advocacy and there were “relatively few formal reports” from judges.
The SRA will be carrying out a programme of work to support appropriate reporting, including engaging with members of the public and the judiciary.
Most respondents to the consultation, issued last August, agreed that trainees should no longer be able to obtain the HRA qualification and some suggested it should be restricted to solicitors with at least two years’ post-qualification experience.
The SRA disagreed: “We have discounted this suggestion at this stage as any period set would be arbitrary and could dissuade solicitors from seeking to obtain the qualification.”
On youth court, the regulator said: “We recognise the potential detrimental market impact and access to competent youth court solicitors if we proceed with our proposal.
“We also recognise the force in the suggestion that the HRA qualification is not necessarily well aligned with the competences required for safe practice in the youth court.”
It will, however, introduce random sampling of the training records of solicitors practising in the youth courts next summer.
“If, as a result of our review of training records, we have concerns about whether a particular individual has met their regulatory obligations, we will contact them to seek an explanation as to why and remind them of their regulatory responsibilities.”
The SRA confirmed that there will be no new restriction on solicitors’ rights of audience in the lower courts until they have been assessed in witness handling.
Despite backing for this plan from the Legal Services Consumer Panel, there was almost unanimous opposition from the other respondents to the consultation.
Respondents were split evenly on the issue of whether a centralised HRA assessment test should be introduced, but the SRA is pressing ahead with it.
The regulator said it had worked with assessment bodies to provide standardised formats, but “a multiple assessment provider model inevitably means different cohorts of candidates are taking different examinations, marked by different assessors”.
The SRA said it expected to appoint a single provider next year, with first assessments, against its revised advocacy standards, beginning in summer 2022 at the earliest.
It will improve its online resources for solicitor-advocates as part of a focus on ensuring their ongoing competence.
“Our initial focus will be on providing practical resources to help solicitors build trust with BAME clients and how to identify and engage with individuals who may be vulnerable or have learning difficulties.”
Paul Philip, SRA chief executive, said: “The public expect all solicitors to provide a high standard of service. This is particularly the case in an area of practice where people are often vulnerable and the stakes are high.
“The measures we are taking will enhance confidence by strengthening higher rights of audience assessments and through ongoing assurance of continuing competence. We will also provide further resources for the profession and the public.”