Criminal law bar faces up to 'solicitor threat'

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By Catherine Baksi

The Criminal Bar Association (CBA) has launched a draft strategy paper on how to maintain its members' position in the market in a bid to meet the 'growing threat of unfair competition' from solicitor higher court advocates (HCAs).

The CBA is concerned that the increased use of HCAs and other in-house advocates by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and defence solicitors, coupled with the government's legal aid reforms from October 2008 - which will encourage law firms to handle advocacy - will reduce the amount of work available to criminal barristers and reduce standards of representation.

The document said the bar welcomed competition from high-quality HCAs. However, it added: 'The recent Solicitors Regulation Authority consultation on solicitors' rights of audience (which suggests the abolition of HCA accreditation in favour of an automatic right of audience subject to continuing quality assurance) reflects the extent of the Law Society's ambition in relation to advocacy work.'

Chairman Andy Hall QC said in his most recent report to the CBA that 'solicitors are not specialist advocates, by temperament, choice or training'. He also wrote that the greatest threat was that the market would be abused by under-qualified and inexperienced HCAs.

The draft document highlighted concerns about the manner in which some solicitor-advocates are employed as 'consultants' in firms to form loose low-risk associations in which advocacy fees are shared, or where they offer their services to a number of firms.

A Law Society spokeswoman said: 'It is simply wrong to suggest that removing the need for solicitors to jump through extra hoops before they can act as advocates in the higher courts will reduce standards.'

Avtar Bhatoa, chairman of the Solicitors Association of Higher Court Advocates, said work carried out by the self-employed criminal bar was down, but the overall amount of work has increased and much of it is still being done by barristers employed by the CPS or in law firms.

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