The Law Society has forced the bar onto the defensive in the increasingly charged debate about the role and performance of solicitor higher-court advocates (HCAs).
Lady Justice Smith, president of the Council of the Inns of Court, has taken the unusual step of withdrawing a letter to resident and presiding judges seeking evidence about the quality of work done by solicitor HCAs and employed barristers.
She also agreed to destroy any responses received by the council, the regulatory arm of the Bar Council, since the letter was sent on 6 April.
Smith?s climbdown came after the Society complained to the Lord Chief Justice about the letter. Chancery Lane shared the concern of solicitor-advocates that the letter ?appeared to demonstrate a bias against solicitor-advocates and employed lawyers, and to support the campaign against these advocates by the self-employed criminal bar?.
?We are pleased that this episode is now over,? the Society said in a statement. ?It is unfortunate that this letter was ever sent. However, we understand that, in fact, a number of the responses received spoke highly about the quality of solicitor-advocates. That provides welcome evidence of the impartiality of those judges who responded and recognition of the high standards of solicitor-advocates.?
Law Society president Paul Marsh said: ?We are grateful to the Lord Chief Justice for his assistance in resolving our concerns. I hope that we can now work positively with the bar and the judiciary to achieve a consensus about advocacy standards across the board.?
Since losing its monopoly of advocacy in higher courts in 1992, the bar has faced mounting competition from solicitor HCAs as well as Crown Prosecution Service advocates. The Bar Council recently established a working group to tackle what it calls unfair competition from solicitor-advocates for Crown Court work (see  Gazette, 14 May, 1). That move followed Judge Gledhill?s criticisms of some solicitor HCAs? performance [see  Gazette, 23 April, 1).
Marsh said: ?Advocates should not take work outside their competence, whether they are solicitors or barristers. There are now thousands of highly competent solicitor-advocates providing an important service to clients. They are an integral part of the way legal services are now delivered and the Society wishes to play its part in helping them to provide the highest standards of advocacy.
?The Society will work to address any attempt to restrict the right of solicitor-advocates to compete in the market.?