The prospect of ending the ?illogical? practice of requiring solicitors to pass a separate advocacy qualification before being allowed to appear in the higher courts was raised last week by the Law Society Regulation Board.

Plans to review the qualifications for higher rights have been under way for some years, and the board will now consult the profession and others on whether the qualifications are justified.

The consultation puts forward three proposals for change. The most radical would see the abolition of the current restrictions and instead automatically give solicitors rights of audience in all courts ? as barristers have ? leaving it up to their professional duty to act only when competent to do so and refer matters outside their competence to specialist advocates.

An alternative suggests the restriction be replaced by a non-mandatory accreditation scheme, coupled with the solicitor?s professional duty only to act when competent. The third option would be to retain the current restrictions, but through a mandatory accreditation scheme, which would require solicitors to demonstrate that they meet the requisite standards before being permitted to undertake higher court advocacy.

At a meeting of the board, solicitor member Edward Solomons said the present bar was ?illogical?, given that a solicitor without higher rights could appear in the county court on a high-value complex claim, but could not take a judgment in the High Court. The current situation was just a ?restrictive practice?, he said, adding that the relevant consideration should be the nature of the work, rather than the nature of the court.

Board chairman Peter Williamson agreed and later told the Gazette: ?We will be asking the profession and a wide range of stakeholders for their views on whether it is an unnecessary restriction for solicitors who are bound by their professional rules to only act where they are able to provide a competent service.

?However, protection of the public will be a prime concern,? he added.

The consultation has been welcomed by the representative arm of the Law Society and by the Crown Prosecution Service. The board was told that the government was keen to see the restrictions reduced, especially in relation to the service.

Desmond Hudson, Law Society chief executive for representation, said: ?There should be no legal restrictions on solicitors, just as there are none on barristers.?

A Department for Constitutional Affairs spokeswoman said: ?We want to see these barriers removed while ensuring that the public is properly protected and are working with the Law Society to realise these changes as soon as possible.?

The consultation will run in the new year for 12 weeks.

By Catherine Baksi

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