The bar has finally abandoned attempts to introduce an accreditation scheme for criminal advocates wishing to exercise rights of audience in the higher courts. Dr Vanessa Davies, director general of the Bar Standards Board, told the Westminster Policy Forum in London today that plans for a Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates (QASA) ‘do not fit in with [the board’s] overall approach of ensuring confidence’.
The announcement appears to mark the end of more than four years of professionally divisive controversy - including legal challenges up to the Supreme Court.
QASA was originally proposed in May 2013 by the Bar Standards Board, the Solicitors Regulation Authority and ILEX Professional Standards. Under the scheme criminal advocates wishing to exercise rights of audience at a higher level would be obliged to apply for accreditation. The idea was to tackle concerns raised by judges over the quality of advocacy.
In 2015, a challenge by criminal barristers to the Legal Services Board's approval of the scheme was dismissed by the Supreme Court.
Following today's announcement, bar chair Andrew Langdon QC, said: 'The birth of the Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates (QASA) was not celebrated by many and its death will be mourned by fewer. I welcome the Bar Standards Board’s (BSB) decision, which is plainly sensible.
'It is well known that many barristers were unhappy with the proposed scheme, not least because it risked placing both advocates and judges in a problematic position, given their respective roles during a trial. Similarly, the bar does not recognise that the concept of a "plea only advocate" was compatible with the role of defence counsel.'
QASA's demise allows space for the bar 'to reinforce standards in a more flexible and proportionate way', Langdon said.
However Paul Philip, SRA chief executive, suggested that the scheme could yet be revived. 'QASA is a solution that was developed many years ago and both regulation and the profession has moved on since then,' he said. 'However, concerns about the quality of criminal advocacy continue to be raised and it is important that we respond to those concerns, be it through QASA or some other route. We are undertaking an additional programme of work to explore how best to ensure high standards of advocacy, and plan to publish a position paper in spring.'
Will Richmond-Coggan, chair of the Solicitors Association of Higher Court Advocates, said the vast majority of advocates deliver a 'high quality of service in very difficult conditions'.
'Like both the SRA and the BSB we nevertheless regard it as essential that consumers of legal services should have confidence in the quality of the advocates they retain, but the range and extent of concerns about the QASA scheme made it unfit for the purpose of instilling that confidence. SAHCA look forward to working with these regulatory bodies as they now go back to the drawing board to produce something that enjoys the confidence of the judiciary, the profession and the public at large,' he added.
Angela Rafferty, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, said: 'This is a very welcome announcement. The CBA will continue to educate and train our members in conjunction with the Bar Council, the Circuits, the Inns and Chambers.'
Law Society president Joe Egan said the Society welcomed the BSB's announcement and had 'consistently voiced its concerns' about the scheme.
'We support proportionate efforts to improve advocacy and in particular any schemes that enable solicitor advocates to demonstrate their skills and competence. We have had considerable reservations about whether QASA was an appropriate or proportionate scheme to assess advocacy,' Egan added.