The meeting of heads of chambers on the South Eastern Circuit last week ended in unanimous opposition to the Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates (QASA) in its current form, it has emerged.
It was the first such meeting that will be replicated across all the circuits ahead of a Criminal Bar Association (CBA) EGM at which the question of whether to take action over the scheme will be decided.
The CBA is also putting together a coalition of barristers, solicitors, judges and opposition politicians in a bid to fight QASA and the introduction of ‘one case, one fee’ in legal aid, its chairman, Michael Turner QC, explained in his weekly update to members.
The CBA has not ruled out some form of industrial action in response to the introduction of QASA – which it was announced last week will now start in September – and Mr Turner reported that the South Eastern Circuit meeting recorded “complete unanimity that QASA in its present form was not in the public interest”.
He added: “What was crystal clear is that all chambers wish to unite behind effective action which will stop the current regime’s determined assault on our profession. Unity is strength and in consequence I am not prepared to suggest what that might be until all our circuits have met and the criminal Bar as a whole agrees on a unified way forward.”
The main sticking points are the introduction of plea-only advocates and having QCs in the scheme, which is being organised by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, Bar Standards Board and ILEX Professional Standards.
He told members that any action taken by the CBA will only be effective if a number of things come together: “a full membership, nationwide communication with all our members, a strong publicity machine, unity within ourselves, unity with our counterparts in Scotland and Northern Ireland and with our colleagues in our sister profession.”
The Criminal Law Solicitors Association recently endorsed the CBA’s position over QASA, and Mr Turner said the pair have agreed on further joint initiatives, although he would not say what they were.
“We have fostered a strong relationship with our brothers and sisters at the Northern Irish Bar and I hope to start that process [this] week with my equivalent in Scotland. Our membership initiative has picked up a momentum which I believe will produce a fully signed-up membership of the entirety of the Criminal Bar in the next two months.”
Mr Turner said the CBA was also seeking support from the judiciary and the opposition front bench. “Successive governments have taken the attitude that the Bar can talk the talk but can not walk the walk. Interestingly, I believe that inability has stemmed from our wish to provide service to our clients at all costs. The situation has changed.
“The Bar and our sister profession are the only people who realise what is over the horizon and how the public, victim, defendant and taxpayer are going to be affected. We are surely now duty bound to take action to protect their rights and a legal system that at one time was the envy of the world.”