The two principal branches of the profession clashed last week after the bar called for a review of advocacy in family law in response to a ‘growing concern’ that an increase in the number of solicitors in hearings has caused standards to decline.
Law Society president Jonathan Smithers accused the bar of ‘self-interest’ and suggested the concerns were more about building workload in the face of civil legal aid cuts.
In a letter to justice minister Shailesh Vara, the Family Law Bar Association and Bar Council said the risk of injustice is now so great that an independent review is ‘absolutely necessary’ in the public interest.
The bar’s letter said that, due to cuts in legal aid fees, solicitors who previously would not have contemplated conducting advocacy at a contested hearing are making appearances without the right skills.
‘The standard of representation being provided in many cases is so poor that unjust outcomes have occurred,’ it said.
The letter says that ‘solicitors require no advocacy training to appear in either the county court… or in the High Court’.
Both Smithers and Jo Edwards (pictured), chair of the family solicitors group Resolution, expressed ‘disappointment’ at the letter and have written to Vara in response.
Smithers said: ‘The reality is that those in need of advice often prefer solicitor-advocates to barristers. Solicitor-advocates provide consistency and can be relied on to know their client’s case inside out from the start through to representation in court.’
Edwards said that previously the family bar’s concerns were about the declining market in advocacy work, and whether this work will fall to solicitors or barristers. ‘For this now to be expressed as a concern about quality changes the nature of that debate,’ she said.