A whopping 78% of respondents to a Bar Standards Board (BSB) survey believe that standards of advocacy have fallen over the past five years – something which many blame on the increasing share of work being taken by solicitor-advocates.
Low rates paid for criminal legal aid work were also cited as a reason for the fall in standards.
One QC interviewed by the BSB as part of the study said: "Higher court advocates are not having the appropriate training, and then they are moving up too quickly...if you don’t give people the proper training and the opportunity to gain appropriate experience, then they are not going to have skills to be able to do the job properly."
Others consulted stated that they felt standards are generally lower for solicitor and CPS advocates than they are for the self-employed bar. They suggested this was due to the fact that barristers usually gain more experience before moving on to cases of greater complexity.
Widespread concern was also expressed about solicitor-advocates coming under pressure to take cases beyond their competence – something which respondents believed may be motivated by a desire to keep advocacy fees within law firms.
47% of the 762 respondents surveyed (the vast majority of whom were barristers) felt that criminal advocates "frequently" or "very frequently" act beyond their competence. And over half (56%) felt that levels of underperformance in criminal advocacy are harming the fair and proper administration of justice.
BSB chair Lady Deech said the research "provides us with a robust evidence base as to the high level of concern about advocacy competence in the criminal courts."
Law Society boss Des Hudson was less impressed. "This is deeply flawed self-serving research. It did not seek to go beneath the surface of perceptions or to identify where any problems with advocacy actually exist,” he said, adding: ‘The best place for this report is the recycling bin."
The aim of the research was to help create a single set of standards for advocates as part of the Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates. But the lack of solicitors taking part (just one filed a response to the survey) following the Criminal Law Solicitors Association's decision to boycott it has undermined the comprehensiveness of the findings.
The full report is available here.
For a particularly damning view of solicitor-advocates, check out the Law Horse's recent blog ‘Solicitor Advocates Are Destroying The Junior Bar’.