Friday 05 April 2013 by Catherine Baksi
Northern circuit barristers have overwhelmingly voted to reject the Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates (QASA) in a secret ballot carried out at end of the March.
It has become the first circuit to declare its hand, after the chairman of the Criminal Bar Association Michael Turner QC (pictured) said barristers are 'preparing for direct action in the form of a boycott of QASA' designed to stop price-competitive tendering (PCT) 'in its tracks'.
He told the Gazette that as well as ballots being carried out on the six circuits, the CBA is considering a judicial review of the decision to introduce the scheme.
Ballot papers were sent to 478 self-declared criminal barristers on the circuit. Of the 460 who voted, 458 voted to refuse to sign up to the controversial accreditation scheme, and two spoilt their ballot papers.
In a second question on the ballot paper, all 460 barristers who took part voted to refuse to accept instructions on the western and Midlands circuits if the barristers on those circuits refused to join the scheme.
In a delayed implementation timetable, QASA will be introduced in phases, beginning on the Midlands and western circuits in September.
Many lawyers have expressed concerns that rather than guarantee quality, the scheme simply sets a minimum standard of competence that will result in a drop in the quality of representation that will have a damaging impact on the criminal justice system.
Leader of the northern circuit Rick Pratt QC said: 'We are not opposed to the principle of quality assurance. We welcome regulation which makes quality of advocacy the determining factor as to who should appear in court and at what level of case.
'But the current scheme does not achieve that aim. It rewards competence, not excellence. It will mean that the lowest common denominator becomes the norm rather than the very high standards which we have always valued.'
Pratt added: 'I hope that the results of this ballot will persuade the Bar Standards Board that this is not the standpoint of a "noisy minority", but the overwhelming majority, both on this circuit and others.'
He said the scheme is 'not fit for purpose' and needed to be revisited and reconstructed to genuinely assure the quality of advocacy.
Meanwhile, the leader of the south-eastern circuit, Sarah Forshaw QC, told the Gazette she had decided to delay the ballot on her circuit until the government's consultation on PCT has been published. It is expected this month.
She said a meeting of heads of chambers in January showed the 'overwhelming mood' of her circuit, the largest of the six, was that barristers 'should have no truck with the QASA scheme as currently drafted'.
But she said the 'real enemy of our publicly funded system' is the proposed introduction of PCT, which is 'potentially hugely damaging' to a criminal justice system.
Forshaw warned that an 'inadequate' QASA scheme may be used as a 'convenient and necessary device' by the Ministry of Justice to reassure the public that genuine quality of representation is assured, despite a new system of tendering for criminal work 'driven by cost alone'.
She urged both sides of the profession to unite 'in the face of swingeing cuts to criminal legal aid' and the 'potential dismantling' of the criminal justice system.
'Unity across the entire legal profession would be impossible to ignore,' she added.