The Solicitors Regulation Authority is to investigate whether solicitors are contributing to a decline in criminal advocacy.

A research project will ask the courts, practitioners and their clients whether solicitors and advocates for the Crown Prosecution Service are ‘working beyond their level of competence’.

The review will also look at whether there is a perception that law firms are retaining work in-house that is beyond their competence.

Other issues that the SRA will address include factors affecting a client's choice of advocate and solicitor behaviours related to the ban on referral fees. A report will be completed in spring.

The review follows a consultation by the Ministry of Justice on enhancing the quality of criminal advocacy. As part of the consultation the MoJ said it would consider a ban on litigators from instructing advocates, a statutory ban on referral fees and a publicly funded panel scheme for criminal defence advocates.

It also comes ahead of the implementation of the Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates (QASA), which is designed to regulate the quality of criminal advocates. 

The SRA’s research into criminal practice is part of a wider research programme, which will also assess the competence of solicitors doing personal injury work, the value of training contracts and work-based experience and the representation of vulnerable consumers. 

Meanwhile the Bar Council has warned barristers against agreeing to do work for law firms in the magistrates' courts for no fee in return for instructions for Crown court work. The bar said that this could be a breach of the ban on referral fees.

It said that in these cases firms often approach chambers on the basis that no payment is available.

But the Bar Council said it is ‘wrong to suggest that no fee is available for this work’, and said that a fee should be agreed between the solicitor and counsel’s clerk when such instructions are accepted.