Advocates’ core courtroom skills on the decline, judges warn

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By Polly Botsford on

Reduced levels of pay blamed for lower morale and standards, finds report

Two-thirds of judges believe the quality of advocacy in criminal courts has DECLINED over time, a report published this week has found.

Though the overall quality was found to be “very good”, there was much judicial “concern” over standards in two areas in particular: first, advocates’ case preparation and, second, their ability to ask focused questions of the witnesses and defendants.

Not surprisingly, the Judicial Perceptions Report highlighted that more than half of the interviewees believe that declining levels of pay in criminal advocacy, and “associated” lowering of morale, have a “negative impact” on the quality of advocacy. Specifically, judges are worried that the best lawyers quit criminal work and move onto civil cases to improve their chances of earning a decent living.

For those brave enough to pursue the criminal bar, the report gives an excellent analysis of what makes a “good advocate” (at least according to the former-advocates-now-judges interviewed).

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The skills needed appear to be: communication, focus and presentation. Or as one judge put it: “Your starting point is not really when people open their mouths in court; it’s what goes on before getting into court”.

Another said:

“The first thing is know your brief, whatever the case is about; second, marshal thoughts and the third is presentation.”

The report, jointly commissioned by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and the Bar Standards Board (BSB), was put together by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research of Birkbeck, University of London and involved in-depth interviews with 50 high court and circuit judges.

Explaining why the report was commissioned and why good advocates are so important, the regulators’ state: “Through their professional knowledge, courtroom skills and experience, advocates not only directly support the individuals they represent, but also ensure the continuing effective operation of the legal system and ongoing public confidence in the rule of law and the courts system.”

This is particularly the case in the light of the Government’s recent round of changes in the justice system which is likely to involve 2,500 fewer court staff.

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