The Attorney General has warned about the “danger” of regulators micro-managing the legal profession, but also indicated that the government is unlikely to roll back the Clementi reforms that led to the creation of independent regulators.
Delivering the keynote speech at the launch in London of the Bar Standards Board’s new handbook last night, Dominic Grieve QC also strongly backed the High Court’s ruling on the Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates (QASA) and the controversial recognition of ‘plea-only advocates’.
Mr Grieve emphasised the government’s determination to reduce burdens on lawyers while ensuring consumer protections.
He said: “I believe strongly in the independence of the professions. I do think there is a danger that our regulators could be drawn into over-regulation, or micro-management of the professions. Indeed, I said as much to David Edmonds when I met him recently.”
But he said there was no going back from the split of regulatory and representative functions initiated by Sir David Clementi; in response to the Ministry of Justice’s review of legal services regulation, the Law Society and Bar Council both called for a partial return to the pre-Clementi world, saying they should be responsible for standard setting, authorisation and training, leaving slimmed-down regulators like the Solicitors Regulation Authority responsible for enforcement and discipline only.
Mr Grieve said: “I am sure the justice secretary would want me to say that this review does not necessarily presage major changes in the statutory framework for regulation, such as the abolition of the Legal Services Board, though I note that the LSB, by calling for a new, single regulator, to be created ‘from scratch’, has in effect proposed the bold step of its own abolition.”
He spoke approvingly about alternative business structures having “opened up the legal services market for lawyers and other professionals to work together in single entities” and argued that barristers could be “at the forefront of this advance”.
He also expressed approval of the High Court’s backing for QASA on Monday, agreeing with its conclusions: “I do not think it is possible for any profession to avoid this level of scrutiny today. I support any process that helps to promote and bolster the high standards of which the criminal Bar is rightly proud, and which weeds out those who are not able to achieve them.”
He tackled head on a sticking point for many barristers opposed to the scheme, which is QASA’s recognition of plea-only advocates. They are “here to stay” and not “really anything new”, he said, adding: “All of us who have practiced in the criminal courts will be familiar from the past with the self-employed barrister who through inclination has limited their practice to pleas and mitigations – not everyone relishes the drama of the trial.”
He stuck to the government’s hard line on legal aid cuts and said the “crux of the matter” was that “the Bar has to focus on how to manage the process of bringing the criminal Bar down to a sustainable size” in the context of falling crime.
Mr Grieve described his visit to Moscow in September to the annual conference of the International Association of Prosecutors, concluding: “There is an overseas market hungry for those educated and experienced in our system of justice and jurisprudence. There is a demand for the work of our law firms because of the reputation, experience and authority that our legal sector can provide.”
He said the BSB’s handbook was an “important step” in achieving the ambition of “clear and unambiguous rules” that were “easy to follow and easily accessible both to practitioners and the layman”.
He continued: “I am sure we all welcome this more coherent approach, and the removal of superfluous rules. Some of the changes in the new Handbook will be controversial. But the important thing is that the profession now makes it work, and maintains the professional standards that have now been redefined by its regulator and reflect the changes in our working practices.”