Assurance scheme will protect the public
The Quality Assurance Scheme for Criminal Advocates (QASA) is soon to become a reality. From January next year, for the first time all criminal advocates, including barristers, solicitors and legal executives, will be assessed against a set of common standards to assure the quality of criminal advocacy in courts in England and Wales.
All solicitors and registered European lawyers wishing to conduct criminal advocacy under QASA need to tell us that they are intending to enter the scheme before it is formally launched early next year. The notifications process is now under way and is the first step to a solicitor becoming recognised under the scheme. The deadline for notification is 21 September 2012.
So why is this scheme necessary? Advocacy is a vital part of an effective justice system. Those accused of crimes rely on high-quality advocacy so that their case is presented persuasively. Judges rely on this to administer justice fairly; and the wider public rely on competent advocacy so that they can have confidence in the criminal justice system. For defendants, effective advocacy is particularly important where their liberty is at stake.
Lord Carter’s report on legal aid in 2006 made it clear that he was concerned by inconsistencies in the quality of advocacy. Six years later, a series of factors, unforeseen in 2006, are putting additional pressure on professional standards: the economic climate, changes to legal aid and increased competition have caused concern that advocates may accept instructions which are beyond their competence.
Responding to these challenges and putting in place an effective system to identify under-performing advocates has been a key regulatory priority of the Bar Standards Board, ILEX Professional Standards and the Solicitors Regulation Authority, which have developed the scheme jointly.
It will ensure that all advocates in magistrates’ and Crown courts undergo a process of accreditation so that they only deal with cases within their competence, and that they are subject to assessment and monitoring of their performance against a common set of agreed standards. The first priority of the scheme is to ensure that we protect the public from those who do not perform to the standard expected. It also needs to allow flexibility, so the overwhelming majority of capable advocates are able to continue working in a way that suits their practice. This is why the SRA made the case robustly that the system should not exclude competent solicitor-advocates just because their practice pattern means they do not undertake full trials.
As a result of extensive consultation and engagement, we now have a scheme in place that we believe will protect the public interest and uphold confidence in the quality of criminal advocacy, while not unnecessarily constraining or changing the way in which advocates work. It ensures that everyone conducting advocacy work, whether it involves making a bail application or conducting the most serious trials, will be subject to accreditation.
Feedback from the consultations has had a significant impact on the final design of the scheme and most of the details have now been agreed. The fourth and final consultation will run for 12 weeks over the summer. It will set out and seek views on the changes that have been made to the scheme since the last consultation (which closed in November 2011) and on the final aspects of detail. This includes proposals for the accreditation of Level 2 advocates, including those whose practice is focused on hearings rather than trials, and the levels within the scheme (including Youth Court work), as well as taking account of further discussions that have been had with key interest groups.
The active participation of the judiciary, who will undertake many of the evaluations of advocates, is fundamental to the success of the scheme. The scheme has the support of senior judges including the lord chief justice, the president of the Queen’s Bench Division and Council of Circuit Judges. Feedback from visits to court centres across the country has been extremely encouraging and judicial training will commence in September, so that judges are trained and ready for the scheme to be launched next year.
So what does the scheme involve?
- A set of common advocacy standards against which all advocates will be assessed.
- Accreditation at one of four levels from Level 1 for work in the magistrates’ court to Level 4 for the most serious cases in the Crown court.
- Progression through the four levels will be achieved by demonstrating competence against the standards for the appropriate level. Advocates can remain at one level but need to be re-accredited every five years.
- Advocates’ level and method of qualification will dictate how they must be assessed by one of three methods - CPD, independent assessment organisation, or judicial evaluation.
- Judicial evaluation will be the compulsory means of assessment for advocates undertaking trials at Levels 2, 3 and 4.
- Trained judges in the Crown courts may assess advocates if they have concerns about performance and notify the appropriate regulator for consideration.
The scheme is set to be finalised in November and introduced in three geographic phases next year starting with Midlands and Western Circuits from January to April; South Eastern Circuit from June to September; and the Northern, North Eastern and Wales and Chester Circuits from September to December. The notification form is available until 21 September 2012. Information to help you complete the form is also available on our website.
Charles Plant is chair of the board of the Solicitors Regulation Authority