An extraordinary public row has erupted over the role of solicitor-advocates after a Crown Court judge told a court that he came close to discharging a jury because of concerns that a solicitor lacked the competence to represent his client properly.

Speaking in open court at the end of a two-week criminal trial, Judge Gledhill QC (pictured) criticised the performance of three of the four solicitor higher court advocates in the case. He also alleged that the advocates? firms had chosen ?to keep the trial within the company? for financial reasons.

Both firms denied the accusation. One of the firms, Bullivant & Partners, said it is preparing a complaint to the Office for Judicial Complaints.

The trial concerned a ?50,000 conspiracy to defraud. Three defendants, Qiu Yeu, Khi-San Voong and Qian Xue, were convicted and the fourth, Dau Yee Chung, was acquitted.

Gledhill made his remarks in an address to the only one of the four solicitor-advocates to escape his censure, self-employed consultant Kate Roxburgh. He said that during the trial ?basic rules of both law and procedure? had been regularly broken.

One solicitor ?addressed the jury directly? on two occasions in cross examination, another ?clearly had no idea what the rules of re-examination were? and the jury was ?misled about one of the defendants? bad ­character?.

?The list goes on and on,? he said.

At one stage, Gledhill said, he was so concerned about the lack of experience and competence of one of the solicitors that he felt he might have to conclude the defendant was ?not properly represented? and discharge the jury. ?Fortunately that stage was not reached,? he said.

Gledhill said the solicitor in question had done his best but ?his knowledge of the law, procedure and advocacy skills fell below that which is needed in this case?.

He suggested legal aid rates might have contributed to the decision to keep the work in-house, ?in effect doubling the income from the case?.

Two of the solicitor-advocates criticised were from London firm Bullivant & Partners, and the third was from London firm McCormacks.

In a four-page statement this week, Bullivant & Partners said its advocates ?refute the accusations of incompetence? and accused the judge of creating an ?intimidating atmosphere? for the advocates. The statement quotes Roxburgh as saying the judge?s hostility ?was conveyed by facial expression and vocal intonation? he referred to us innumerable times as ?solicitors? in tones of contempt?. In contrast, it said, the judge treated the only barrister in the case ? the prosecuting counsel ? ?with perfectly proper courtesy?.

The firm denied the judge?s accusation that it had kept the case in-house for financial reasons: ?To assert this is to assume that solicitors will disregard their professional duties to their clients for financial gain.?

McCormacks, whose client was acquitted, said: ?Judges ought not to use the bench as a platform for making suppositions about the way advocates are instructed without first seeking evidence of the facts.?

Antony Townsend, chief executive of the Solicitors Regulation Authority, said: ?Solicitors are required to uphold the proper administration of justice and to provide their clients with a good standard of service. They should not act in cases that are beyond their level of competence.? He said that Judge Gledhill raised ?serious concerns that will be investigated?.

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