The Bar Standards Board has today extended the first registration deadline for the Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates in the face of a threatened mass boycott by barristers.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority is poised to follow suit.
In a statement this morning, the BSB said the deadline will be extended from 10 January to 9 March 2014 ‘to ensure the criminal bar will have more time to consider the consequences of government changes to legal aid before registering’.
The end of the first registration period will now be after the Ministry of Justice publishes its final response to its consultation on price-competitive tendering.
The SRA board is expected to approve a similar extension later today.
Barristers on four of the seven circuits - all of the circuits that have so far voted on the issue - have passed near-unanimous motions to boycott the controversial assessment designed for all publicly funded criminal advocates.
At meetings this week the Midland and North Eastern circuits unanimously resolved not to sign up to QASA or to take work from other circuits where barristers have refused support. Their decisions follow similar resolutions by the Northern, and Wales and Chester circuits.
QASA was signed off last month by the three legal regulators who designed it.
A spokeswoman for the Bar Standards Board said earlier this week that refusing to sign up to QASA is not a breach of the Code of Conduct but to undertake criminal advocacy without registering for QASA would be a disciplinary offence.
She said: ‘The BSB understands that the circuits have voted to oppose quality appraisal as a means of expressing a view about the Ministry of Justice consultation on legal aid.’
But she said that was misguided. ‘A boycott of QASA is neither in the public interest nor an appropriate means of making that case,’ she said.
The chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, Michael Turner QC, described QASA as ‘a fig leaf of respectability to pave the way for price-competitive tendering’.
He said: ‘The only reason for QASA is because they [the MoJ] are removing client choice. Where there is a healthy competitive market, there is no need for a quality control system. It’s the competition that keeps the market honest.’
The BSB appears to have heeded his words. BSB chair Baroness Ruth Deech (pictured) said today: ‘The criminal bar is facing unprecedented change and understandably its current focus is on responding to the legal aid consultation to ensure proposals do not impede access to justice.
‘Likewise, the BSB is also drafting a robust response which will focus on the impact of proposed changes on the public interest.
‘However, the Ministry of Justice is scheduled to publish its final plans for legal aid during the first QASA registration period, and whilst QASA is a guardian of competence, not a pricing system, and sits separately from government plans, we recognise that the bar will need time to reflect once the final legal aid plans have been announced.
‘Extending the QASA registration period therefore provides extra time for barristers in the Midland and Western Circuits to consider the full impact of any changes.’
Commenting on the BSB’s announcement, a Law Society spokesperson said: ‘For consistency, the extension of the registration phase should apply to all advocates - barristers and solicitors. We therefore hope the SRA will follow suit and extend the registration window for the first phase, which covers the advocates on the Midland and Western Circuits.’
Law Society chief executive Desmond Hudson last week urged super-regulator The Legal Services Board to delay implementation of the scheme in recognition of the ‘profound shifts and uncertainties’ afflicting criminal practitioners.
Within a year the scheme may be ‘meaningless’ to many firms under threat of extinction as a result of the PCT plans, he warned.