A proposed new quality assurance scheme for criminal advocates could prejudice solicitors because it places too much weight on the views of judges, an advocates group has warned.

The Solicitors Association of Higher Court Advocates (SAHCA) has voiced concerns about the ‘over-reliance’ on judicial evaluation proposed in the new quality assurance scheme for criminal advocates (QAA).

The scheme, proposed by the Joint Advocacy Group, which comprises the Bar Standards Board, the Solicitors Regulation Authority and ILEX Professional Standards, is currently out for consultation.

Under the QAA, all criminal advocates will be assessed against a common set of standards, with four levels of competence ranging from magistrates’ court work to complex Crown court cases. To move up the levels to cover the more complex Crown court work, advocates’ performance will be subject to judicial evaluation.

SAHCA acting chair Yvonne Spencer said: ‘The over-reliance on judicial evaluation in the proposed scheme is problematic. Historically, there has been a bias towards the bar by judges, given their background, and this may act to prejudice solicitor-advocates. We are in favour of driving up quality standards, but there must be parity with the bar.’

Spencer said the involvement of judges may act as a deterrent to some, who may feel less able to run test case legal arguments for fear that they may not find favour with the judge, which will affect their assessment.

On a practical level, Spencer said the proposal was unworkable given the constraints under which judges work. ‘With heavy caseloads and high targets to meet, judges will not have the time to do the evaluations,’ she said.

Spencer added that the scheme would be cumbersome and expensive for the practitioners, who would bear the cost.

A Law Society spokesperson said Chancery Lane’s consultation response would reflect SAHCA’s concerns, as well as setting out objections to the ‘top-heavy and overly bureaucratic governance structure proposed for the scheme’.

The consultation closes next month and the scheme is scheduled to be introduced in July 2011.