The largest of the six bar circuits has voted to boycott the Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates (QASA) – which the circuit leader vowed ‘will be defeated’.
At a ‘unique’ meeting attended by some 400 barristers in London on Saturday, Sarah Forshaw QC, leader of the South Eastern circuit, also criticised the government’s criminal legal aid reforms, which she said would ‘destroy the independent bar’ and hit ‘middle-class families hardest’.
Forshaw reported that over 1,000 votes were collected in the circuit’s ballot on QASA. Only one barrister said they would sign up.
There was also unanimity from the circuit that members will refuse to accept work from barristers on the Midland and Western circuits, who are timetabled to be the first to sign up to the scheme when it is implemented in September.
The vote follows similar decisions made by the Midland, Northern, North East and Wales and Chester circuits.
Forshaw told the meeting: ‘We face a set of circumstances - a threat not just to us but to the rule of law - and to the public we serve - that we have never faced before.’
She said barristers do not object to and had nothing to fear from proper quality assessment, but she said QASA was ‘fundamentally flawed’.
Forshaw said: ‘The bar is fed up with taking fright at shadows. We will take a stand and, if something else that is flawed comes at us, we will fight that too.’
She said QASA is not ‘fit for purpose’ and it ‘will be defeated’. But Forshaw stressed that she did not want the scheme to distract from the ‘truly important’ issue of the government’s planned introduction of price-competitive tendering (PCT).
She warned that if the reforms currently under consultation are implemented, standards will ‘plummet’ and a two-tier system will emerge, with specialist advocates for those who can afford to pay for it and ‘work-a-day wigs with no peer competition’ for the rest.
Forshaw warned that the cuts will ‘destroy the independent criminal bar’ and with silks suffering the ‘worst cuts’ she said the chambers ‘structure is at risk’.
She said that the bar had a ‘carefully planned strategy’ to challenge the proposals and take ‘our message to the public’, stressing that ‘downing tools in protest’ is not appropriate ‘at this stage’.
She highlighted the ‘painful impact’ that the changes – in particular the £37,500 eligibility limit and the removal of client choice – would have on ‘hard-working, hard-pressed families; the middle England voter – many of who are in marginal constituencies.’
‘Removing legal aid from middle-income British families, regardless of their ability to afford their own legal defence, could bankrupt many families or leave them without proper representation in court,’ she said.
She told her colleagues: ‘Any one of us could be driving along only to face a pedestrian stepping out in front of us, and end up ourselves facing a careless driving charge. Any one of us could have a son who needs to defend himself on a night out, only for him to be the one who ends up being charged.’
She said: ‘Under any one of these scenarios, middle-class families could, through no fault of their own, require representation in court,’ which could set them back £10,000 for a three-day trial. ‘How many hard-working families could afford to pay that?’ she said.
Criminal Bar Association chair Michael Turner QC warned that the cuts would have a devastating impact on the judiciary. ‘The disappearance of the bar will lead in a short time to the disappearance of an intellectual rigorous and independent judiciary.’
Former Lord Justice of Appeal Sir Anthony Hooper called on judges to speak out against the cuts.