The 1990 Courts and Legal Services Act ended the bar?s monopoly on rights of audience in the higher courts. Since then there have been periodic murmurings of discontent from the bar and judiciary about the quality of solicitor higher court advocates. Many observers have seen this as nothing more than a knee-jerk response to fresh competition.
Over recent years the number of solicitors obtaining higher rights has grown to around 5,000 ? 4.5% of the profession.
The tension between the two branches of the profession has increased as the work available to the bar in criminal cases has been squeezed; with the Crown Prosecution Service and solicitors making increased use of in-house advocates.
Last year Peter Lodder QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, attacked what he saw as the ?appalling? standards of some solicitor advocates.
Now Judge Gledhill?s stinging criticisms (see news) have set the cat among the pigeons once again.
The two firms involved issued strongly worded responses to the judge?s remarks and assertions, and one is preparing to make an official complaint to the Office for Judicial Complaints.
Whoever, is right or wrong, this case raises two possibilities, neither of which is attractive.
If the judge is right, it means a defendant facing a serious charge, whose representation was paid for out of the public purse, was represented by someone barely competent. So much for the Legal Services Commission?s repeated assurance that the legal aid reforms would not affect quality. It also means a firm potentially put financial gain above its obligation to its client.
If the solicitors are right, that means a judge is potentially biased against certain defence representatives, which has serious implications for the fair administration of justice.
The case raises other questions too: was this an appropriate way for the judge to vent his spleen?; should the system for obtaining higher rights be reformed?; and will the LSC?s planned quality assurance for advocates scheme help address the perceived problem?