Deteriorating standards of criminal advocacy are having an impact on the administration of justice – with solicitor-advocates to blame, a Bar Standards Board (BSB) survey has claimed.
Over three-quarter of the 762 respondents felt that standards of advocacy have fallen over the past five years, blaming the increasing involvement of solicitor-advocates and the impact of public funding.
Nearly half frequently encountered advocates acting beyond their competence.
The survey by Orc International is meant to provide a baseline ahead of implementation of the Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates (QASA) but has been blasted as “deeply flawed and self-serving” by the Law Society.
Most of the respondents (82%) were drawn from the Bar, with 10% chartered legal executives/associate prosecutors and 7% lay magistrates. Just one solicitor took part after the Criminal Law Solicitors Association urged its members to boycott the survey and the Law Society went nearly as far, because the Solicitors Regulation Authority was not involved in the survey.
The core reason cited for falling standards was the increased involvement of solicitor-advocates, who are seen “to be of a generally poorer standard than barristers”; respondents felt that standards at the self-employed Bar have been maintained. However, a minority of respondents – “particularly those answering from a more neutral background (not associated with the Bar in any way)” – felt there was less of a difference.
The other key reason was the cutting of funding and the “increased pressure” which this has put on advocacy – such as to encourage advocates to act beyond their competence or take on too many cases – while also driving some out of the field altogether.
Though there was not a specific question about QASA, several respondents felt that additional regulation is necessary given the decline in standards.
BSB chairman Baroness Ruth Deech said: “This provides us with a robust evidence base as to the high level of concern about advocacy competence in the criminal courts. However, we are disappointed that solicitors and judges did not take part as this would have given us more extensive data to analyse.”
Law Society chief executive Des Hudson described the research as “deeply flawed and self-serving” and said the best place for it was the recycling bin.
He explained: “It did not seek to go beneath the surface of perceptions or to identify where any problems with advocacy actually exist. It simply gave participants an opportunity to express their prejudices and self-interest.”
However, he noted that more independent observers canvassed in the research, such as magistrates, provided “a much more balanced perspective and do not endorse the specific concerns about solicitors’ advocacy that barristers express”.