The Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates (QASA) will ‘annul the historic rights’ of most solicitors to appear before magistrates’ courts and prompt lawsuits against regulators, the Law Society has warned.
In a robust response to the fourth and final consultation on the plans to introduce the controversial scheme, the Society says that going ahead with judicial evaluation as the only route to accreditation for trial advocates was a ‘pure gamble’.
Given the reducing number of Crown court trials and reluctance of some judges to take part, it says the scheme ‘flies in the face’ of what is achievable and warned of a ‘high likelihood’ of there being an insufficient number of Crown court trials to enable all advocates to be assessed.
Chancery Lane urges the three legal regulators that designed the scheme to extend the ‘highly dangerous’ timetable in which criminal advocates must be assessed, or risk lawsuits against them. Otherwise it says the scheme may be seen as ‘irrational in law’ if applicants are unable through no fault of their own to comply with ‘a wholly contrived number of trials to be done over a certain period’.
While the proposed 12-18 months allowed for Crown court advocates to obtain judicial evaluations ‘might suit a practice model as pursued by the self-employed bar’, for solicitor-advocates it is ‘commonplace’ not to receive a single case in 18 months that ends up going to Crown court trial.
The Society said: ‘The current proposal is therefore possibly anti-competitive in law as its effect discriminates against the practice model used by firms of solicitors.’
QASA, due to begin in January, will provide a single route through which solicitors, barristers and legal executives carrying out publicly funded criminal advocacy will be assessed through a common set of standards at four levels of competency. Chancery Lane said the scheme will ‘annul the historic rights of the majority of solicitors to appear before the magistrates’ courts’, as only those who appear regularly will want to be reaccredited after the first five years.
The Society welcomed some ‘significant improvements’ in relation to the youth court, the adoption of more generic case levels and the assessment of plea only advocates, but said its ‘fundamental objections’ had not been allayed and the scheme still contained ‘significant flaws’.
In addition, it said it was ‘astonishing’ that those constructing the scheme – the Solicitors Regulation Authority, Bar Standards Board and ILEX Professional Standards had done nothing to assess how much it would cost to administer.
In its response to the consultation, the Solicitors Association of Higher Court Advocates reiterated its objection to judicial evaluation. It called for an in-depth evaluation of the scheme in 2015, based on independent qualitative and quantitative research.