There is “sufficient consistency of evidence and concern” about the standard of criminal advocacy to warrant the Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates (QASA), the Legal Services Board concluded today.
Giving QASA the green light, the LSB acknowledged the lack of conclusive evidence, but said “the concerns and limited evidence suggest a real risk, and a pattern, of actual problems in standards across a wide range of criminal advocates and almost nothing by way of evidence that quality is consistent good enough”.
It thus approved the rules of the scheme as proposed by the three regulators behind QASA – the Bar Standards Board, Solicitors Regulation Authority and ILEX Professional Standards.
The LSB decision notice said: “The board considers that the proposed scheme has the potential to provide reliable and sustained evidence for approved regulators to measure and improve the quality of criminal advocacy over time.
“The board further considers that it is important that where there is opportunity, through a proportionate and targeted mechanism of accreditation, for relevant approved regulators to measure and enhance the quality of criminal advocacy, they should do so.
“In that regard, the board concludes that the scheme is proportionate because it addresses the risk in a structured way that allows the scheme to be adjusted on the basis of evidence gained from its actual implementation.”
The LSB considered the main objections to QASA but found no evidence that the independence of either advocates or judges would be put at risk.
It said: “The board also took into consideration that the scheme introduces transparent and consistent criteria for advocates to be judged against and that judges will receive training on how to apply these criteria.
“It could be argued that the scheme will be more robust and transparent than what happens under current arrangements, where judges may provide feedback informally on the performance of advocates via the circuits to heads of chambers rather than via the approved regulator.”
The LSB said it was reassured by the regulators’ commitment to review the operation of QASA after two years.
It also emphasised that it was not unusual that the LSB had a role in overseeing the development of QASA and then had to rule on the regulatory changes that resulted.
A spokeswoman for the three regulators said: “We are pleased that the scheme has had the final go-ahead from the LSB. QASA will work in the public interest by establishing a common set of standards for advocates across the three professions so that consumers can have confidence in the standard of advocacy they receive – regardless of their advocate’s original route into the profession.”
Oliver Hanmer, head of quality at the Bar Standards Board, added: “QASA exists to protect the public from those advocates who are not as good as they should be. The majority of barristers will complete the process without any difficulty, but it is right that we act to stop those who fall short.”
Ian Watson, CEO of ILEX Professional Standards, said: “This scheme will go a long way in assuring the public that their advocates are being held to quality standards, and that they are being regularly reviewed. CILEx advocates and associate prosecutors employed by the Crown Prosecution Service will need to comply with QASA. However the requirements are broadly the same as those which they meet currently.”
Diane Burleigh, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives, agreed: “CILEx is ahead of the game on quality assuring our advocates. Through our advocacy qualification scheme we have required chartered legal executive advocates to reaccredit every three years. Whilst QASA will standardise this across the professions to every five years, it is good to see the rest of the legal profession catching up with us.”
The QASA Handbook will shortly go live and each of the regulators will now work on finalising the remaining operational aspects of the scheme, as well as setting up a programme of events and webinars in the run-up to the launch of the first phase in the Midlands and South-West circuits on 30 September, running through to 7 March 2014.
The remaining two phases of launch will run from 10 March-13 June 2014 (South Eastern circuit) and 30 June-3 October 2014 (Northern, North Eastern, and Wales and Chester circuits).