The chairman of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) yesterday tried to cool emotions after former Lord Chancellor Michael Gove’s criticism of solicitor-advocates, saying that “the label matters less than the content of the bottle”.
Delivering the Longford Lecture last week, Mr Gove bemoaned the decline of the criminal Bar and said more serious criminal defence work should be restricted to barristers, and solicitor-advocates who wanted to do it should have to requalify.
It generated a heated response from William Richmond-Coggan, chairman of the Solicitors Association of Higher Court Advocates, who accused the Bar of protectionism and said “solicitor-advocates have considerable experience of standing firm in the face of discrimination and prejudice, and they are here to stay, whether the Bar likes it or not”.
However, in his weekly email to CBA members, chairman Francis FitzGibbon said he welcomed “any advocate whose ability matches the cases they are briefed in”.
He continued: “The label matters less than the content of the bottle. What is not tolerable is a market for advocacy services that is failing to serve the public interest – which is what we have now, and will continue to have until the payment system is reformed on rational lines and defence advocates are properly assessed.
“I don’t mean QASA, but the defence panel scheme (or something like it) which has been under discussion for the last two years: a scheme that does not discriminate between barristers and solicitors, but determines fairly who has the ability to take on more challenging work, whichever side of the house they come from.
“We are still waiting for the Ministry of Justice to give its answer to the many responses to its October 2015 consultation on quality in advocacy. There is no excuse for the delay.”
Mr FitzGibbon added that “a non-barking dog” in Mr Gove’s lecture was an acknowledgment that the main reason that economic forces have driven solicitors to recruit advocates – and so claim both litigator and advocacy fees for the same case – was “the relentless assault on criminal legal aid, which has made some people sacrifice quality and the public interest in order to show a profit, when margins are squeezed almost beyond endurance”.
Though Mr Gove did not create LASPO, “he inherited it, but every implication of his lecture is that he regrets what it – and its predecessors – have done to our profession,” Mr FitzGibbon said.
Mr Richmond-Coggan argued last week that the huge growth in the amount of work being handled by solicitor-advocates – from 6% to 43% in decade – was “a reflection of their ability to offer an end-to-end service unmatched by the criminal Bar’s guns for hire, who are frequently parachuted in at the end of the case to collect a disproportionate share of the available fee”.