The Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates (QASA) is illogical in its treatment of QCs and does not serve the public interest by allowing solicitors to act as plea-only advocates, the chairman of the Bar Council has argued.
The claims come as the bodies representing criminal law solicitors and barristers united in calling for a halt to the scheme.
Implementation of QASA is currently on hold pending final changes and a revised timetable, but its fundamental features will not change, according to the Joint Advocacy Group that has developed it, made up of the Bar Standards Board, Solicitors Regulation Authority and ILEX Professional Standards.
But in an interview with Legal Futures, Bar Council chairman Maura McGowan QC, herself a criminal law barrister, said the Bar originally saw QASA as a way to remove poor-quality advocates – both barristers and solicitors – and retain and improve good standards. “What the scheme is going to achieve, and it doesn’t set out to do more than this, is a minimum standard of competence, and that’s not the same as excellence or quality.”
Ms McGowan argued that QCs should not be included in the scheme. “There’s an illogicality behind a system which on the one hand gives silk for excellence but on the other tries to assess you to see if you’re competent,” she explained.
On plea-only advocates, she continued: “You will have people who are accredited to do pleas at category 2 who will be able to act up to do a plea at category 3 – only one category down from the most serious work – despite the fact that they do not hold themselves out to be competent to do a trial at the lowest level. I’m not sure that’s the best service for a member of the public who finds themselves in trouble and doesn’t know how the system works.”
However, she made it clear that the Bar Council would not be calling for a boycott, as the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) might yet do.
Meanwhile, Bill Waddington, chairman of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association, said he welcomed the Bar’s opposition to QASA. In a statement issued on Friday, he said: “The CLSA has responded to every consultation on QASA questioning the need for the scheme. There is ample provision within the existing regulatory framework for solicitors and barristers to deal with issues that arise with Crown Court advocacy standards.
“The proposed scheme would be bureaucratic and expensive to administer for advocates, the judiciary and the Courts Service. At a time of unprecedented spending cuts, it is time for the professional regulators to take a step back and listen to both sides of the profession who are now united in calling for a halt to this unnecessary scheme.”
CBA chairman Michael Turner QC has been outspoken in his criticism of the scheme and welcomed the statement. “Unity is strength,” he said in his weekly update to members.
Every circuit will shortly hold heads of chambers meetings ahead of an extraordinary general meeting of the CBA to determine how members should respond to the scheme
Law Society president Lucy Scott-Moncrieff has also reiterated Chancery Lane’s concerns about QASA. In an interview in this month’s magazine of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association, she said: “We’re not happy with aspects of QASA and we’ve made that very plain. In particular, we are concerned about the prospective loss of the right of every solicitor to represent clients in the magistrates’ courts and about judicial assessments. When you’re in court, you should be representing your client’s interest, not trying to get brownie points from the judge.
“We also think it’s over-burdensome, overly bureaucratic and may not work. There’s no start date agreed. When it does start, we’ll be monitoring it very closely, doing our utmost to make sure that it’s fair to our members.”