Barristers and solicitors are at loggerheads over whether plea-only advocates (POAs) need to undergo judicial evaluation as part of the Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates (QASA) for criminal law specialists.
If a resolution cannot be found – and we understand that the Solicitors Regulation Authority has rejected the idea of a two-year transition period – then the whole scheme could fall apart.
The start-date has already been pushed back; originally slated for late last year, it was meant to begin next month but now the Bar Standards Board is merely expressing hope that it will happen this year.
On Friday the BSB issued a statement in which it called on the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and ILEX Professional Standards to press ahead with QASA as it was agreed by the three of them last year. This would mean that POAs would need judicial evaluation, as the issue only arose after most of the work had been done on the scheme.
It called the pair the “minority advocacy regulators”, a new description likely only to inflame tensions, even though the BSB defended it on the basis that the majority of advocates affected by the scheme are barristers. However, Law Society president John Wotton said that “the overwhelming bulk of advocacy in England and Wales is carried out by solicitors”.
The BSB told Legal Futures in a separate statement: “The BSB believes that all advocates should be subject to judicial evaluation in the public interest. The BSB has reviewed the SRA research findings with regard to POAs and believes the advocates affected are relatively small in number, and therefore it would not be proportionate to alter the implementation of the scheme which was agreed in principle by all regulators in the summer of 2011.
“The BSB has proposed that plea-only advocates would be a
llowed to continue to practise while giving them up to two years to develop their skills and experience to conduct full trials and to come within the full framework of the scheme and be judicially evaluated in full trials should they wish.
“The BSB proposal will encourage POAs to come within the full framework of the scheme and to be assessed in the same way as full trial advocates. Training will be put in place to assist those who currently don’t undertake trials to develop the necessary skills to be able to do so.”
In response, the SRA issued a statement saying that QASA “should not be used as a device to exclude the demonstrably competent simply because their pattern of practice does not include trial work”.
It told this website that the agreement had been that all advocates undertaking trials should be subject to judicial evaluation. “Unlike the BSB, we do not consider it to be in the public interest, or the role of a responsible and proportionate regulator, to exclude from practice large numbers of competent individuals simply because of the way in which they choose to structure their business.
“It is our view that all those who are able to demonstrate their competence against the full range of QASA standards should be able to enter the scheme and gain their QASA accreditation. If in the future evidence emerges which links practice patterns to the quality of advocacy then we would of course be willing to review and if necessary amend the scheme.”
Unsurprisingly the Bar Council is backing the BSB’s stance, while the Law Society is fully behind the SRA.
A spokeswoman for ILEX Professional Standards (IPS) said: “IPS is a member of the Joint Advocacy Group, along with the SRA and BSB. CILEx members are level 1 advocates within the JAG scheme and have an important role in advocacy at that level.
“IPS is fully committed to the introduction of quality assurance standards in advocacy and recognises their importance in protecting and promoting the interests of consumers as well as assisting in the impartial administration of justice. To that effect IPS is committed to the JAG proposals and ready for their implementation to the extent that they affect CILEx members.”