The launch of the controversial quality assurance scheme for criminal advocates is likely to be delayed, the Joint Advocacy Group (JAG) has announced.
In the light of issues being raised in the current consultation on the rules of the scheme, JAG said “some adjustments” to the scheme are likely “to ensure that there are not unintended consequences”. A postponement of the full launch – which was planned for December – is also expected.
The consultation on the regulatory changes needed to introduce the Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates (QASA) was supposed to finish today, but JAG has extended it for a further month.
A JAG spokesman said: “We remain very committed to the introduction of a single set of standards for criminal advocates as soon as possible, but our priority is to develop a scheme which protects the public interest, while being both proportionate and consistent. A number of valid issues on how the scheme can operate most effectively have been raised during the consultation period.
“As responsible, public interest regulators, we must take the time needed to look at these in more detail, to ensure that the scheme meets our public interest objectives.”
QASA has been devised over the last two years by the three leading regulators of legal advocacy – the Solicitors Regulation Authority, the Bar Standards Board and ILEX Professional Standards, who make up JAG – and has already involved two consultations. All the regulators had already signed off the scheme and submitted it to the Legal Services Board for approval.
However, in recent months the Law Society and Solicitors Association of Higher Court Advocates have begun expressing concerns over QASA, and particularly the role of judicial evaluations. One recently identified problem currently under review is the position of solicitor-advocates who only get involved at sentencing and so would not have the chance for a judicial evaluation.
Law Society chief executive Des Hudson welcomed the delay. “The Law Society has never been against the principle of a proportionate and balanced quality assurance of advocacy scheme. We believe that, properly implemented, it could provide an important opportunity for solicitor-advocates to demonstrate their skills and for the public to identify the best advocates.
“However, the proposal from the JAG had significant flaws to the extent that it could cause serious and unnecessary damage to the practices of many competent solicitors and to the administration of justice.”
Last month, a row blew up  over the Legal Services Commission’s suggestion that advocates’ graduated fee scheme payments be tied to the four levels of advocates under QASA, which would have hit QCs. But the government and commission have now backed down in the face of fury from the Bar.