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E&W solicitor advocates running out of time

Editorial Staff

The Law Society of England and Wales long ago began a system of registering those that wanted to demonstrate they met certain criteria. It was a voluntary quality assurance scheme. It was, at the time, seen as a bit of a waste of time by professionals who had extensive experience and new what they were doing, a way for the second rank to gain credibility that they did not, fully, deserve on merit. Gradually, the idea mutated away from a marketing tool to part of regulation and it is now a compulsory registration of specialists in certain areas. The latest to fall under the compulsory requirement is Solicitor-Advocates. And disturbingly, many have not signed up with only days to go.

The merits of dedicated quality assurance schemes for individual areas of practice are open to debate. Supporters say that they raise the standard of specialist areas, others say it's a pointless and expensive layer of administration that penalises practices that are already well run.

Whatever the view, it's irrelevant because the Solicitors Regulatory Authority requires solicitor-advocates to "notify" it if they intend to continue to practice after March 2013.

Not all advocates are affected: the system relates, at present, specifically to those engaged in criminal advocacy. There are, says the SRA, about 10,000 such persons in England and Wales but less than three quarters of them had notified the SRA with only three weeks to go to the deadline.

Now there is just ten days as all notifications must be submitted before 21 September 2012.

Many solicitors undertake ad-hoc defence of long established clients in minor matters before a Magistrates' Court. Examples are speeding tickets, drunk-driving and shoplifting. The standard of advocacy is not high and, in the vast majority of cases does not need to be.

The ultimate objective of the scheme is open to question. The SRA registration is part of a wider move: barristers and (qualified) legal executives who appear before the Criminal Courts are also subject to a registration scheme although the Bar Standards Board says it sees no need for it to run a registration scheme similar to that demanded by the SRA. That is because beyond the SRA scheme is a new "Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates" to be known as QASA.

Taking the move to its logical conclusion, it is on the way to creating a unified profession of criminal advocates. Although each of three affected groups will remain subject to their own professional regulation, at least until someone urges change, the new QASA will have a role as a combined supervisor in relation to the quality of their work.

The Bar Standards Board says "The Scheme will systematically assess and assure the quality of criminal advocacy in the courts in England and Wales and will ensure that the performance of all advocates is measured against the same set of standards, regardless of an advocate's previous education and training."

The BSB also indicates an intention to expand the scheme to other courts.

The scheme seems designed to, ultimately, produce a separate profession of "Advocate."

Unsurprisingly, the scheme requires payment of fees, except for those who intend to practice only in the Magistrates' Court.

The selling point, according to the BSB is that "All advocates are under a duty to act within their competence and this duty is enshrined in the professions' respective rules and regulations. The Scheme will provide a framework to assist advocates to identify their existing level of competence, as well as a structure in which to develop and prove their competence at a higher level."

One might argue that the need for such a scheme is driven, at least in part, by the reduction in quality and standards of those admitted to practise law over several decades in which the law has, increasingly, become a career or a business and less of a profession.