Solicitors Regulation Authority proposals to assure advocacy standards simply add an extra layer of bureaucracy, criminal defence practitioners have warned.
The SRA says it wants to improve how it currently regulates advocacy standards and protect consumers after 'persistent concerns' were raised about the standard of solicitors' advocacy, which the regulator says have mainly focused on criminal rather than civil advocacy. A consultation on its proposals closes tomorrow.
Under the plans, a single, centralised higher rights of audience assessment would be introduced, to be taken after admission. Youth court solicitors would be required to pass the regulator's higher court advocacy qualification where they are acting as advocates in a case which would go to the Crown court if brought against an adult.
However the regulator's consultation was questioned at the Criminal Law Solicitors Association's annual conference in Bath last weekend. One criminal defence practitioner said: 'We're already regulated around that. This is creating an extra layer of bureaucracy because of one complaint that there's a problem.'
The SRA consultation paper says 'there is a lack of robust evidence on the scale and nature of concerns about the standard of advocacy provided by solicitors... The concerns about advocacy standards, particularly criminal advocacy in the higher courts, have persisted for several years but with limited hard evidence'.
Daniel Bonich, CLSA vice-chair, said: 'There is less than one complaint a year concerning the youth court. This misconceived proposal on youth court advocacy seeks to deal with a problem that does not exist and shows a lack of understanding of youth court practice. It puts at further risk the supplier base by adding significant financial pressure on legal aid firms who will have to consider whether to cease to provide any youth court representation which would to have an adverse impact on access to justice in the youth court.'
The Solicitors' Association of Higher Courts Advocates is among those who have responded to the consultation. The association says the single assessment is a 'retrogressive step' which will significantly increase assessment costs and the youth court requirement 'seems counterintuitive'.
At present, solicitors are automatically granted rights of audience in the magistrates' and county court when they are admitted. By then, they must have passed advocacy assessments on the Legal Practice Couse and Professional Skills Course. Solicitors who want to practice advocacy in the Crown court and High Court must pass an additional assessment which tests their knowledge of evidence, procedure, witness handling, ability to conduct a full trial and ethics in the higher courts.
This is not the first time the SRA has addressed criminal advocacy concerns. The regulator, Bar Standards Board and Chartered Institute of Legal Executives developed a Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates, which barristers claimed was unlawful. A challenge to the approval of the scheme was dismissed by the Supreme Court in 2015. However, the SRA says in its consultation paper that it no longer considers QASA fit for purpose.