The Bar Standards Board has approved the handbook for the controversial Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates.
At the regulator’s meeting last night, lay member Malcolm Cohen was the sole dissenting voice. He told the board: ‘The scheme is not proportionate to the perceived risk and I am not persuaded by the arguments in any submissions that there is an evidence base to support the need for the scheme in the Crown court or above. Albeit reluctantly, I cannot support the scheme and will dissent.’
BSB chair Lady Deech (pictured) suggested that there was evidence of the need to monitor standards, demonstrated by the reports from HM CPS Inspectorate.
She said: ‘The scheme originated years ago in a similar form because judges were complaining, not often and quietly, about the performance of a few advocates and judges felt unable to do anything about it, especially in small centres.
‘We are giving judges an acceptable, discrete and transparent way to address concerns.’
Deech said she recognised that much of the profession did not like the scheme, but she insisted that in any profession, even one as ‘ancient, skilled and respected’ as advocacy, the public expect there to be some form of accreditation and assessment.
She said she had no doubt that the vast majority of criminal barristers would ‘sail through it’.
But she added: ‘If there are underperformers, it must be in the public interest for them to be identified and supported,’ especially in crime, where she said clients are often vulnerable and cannot be expected to ask intelligent questions about the quality of their advocate.
Vice-chair Patricia Robertson QC said the fact that evidence about underperforming advocates was mainly anecdotal was one of the reasons why QASA was needed.
Robertson said that by itself QASA will not address all the risks in the system. ‘It is not the end of the journey, but the beginning,’ she said.
The handbook has been jointly put together by the three legal regulators – the BSB, Solicitors Regulation Authority and ILEX Professional Standards.
A meeting of the SRA board approved the handbook at a meeting earlier the same day.
The handbook will now be submitted to the Legal Services Board for approval, before being published on 17 June.
A phased implementation, beginning with advocates on the Midlands and Western circuits being required to register, will start from 30 September.
Many barristers and solicitors have indicated that they will boycott the scheme. The northern circuit voted overwhelmingly not to sign up and other circuits are currently ballotting their members.