In the Media

Solicitors doubt judges? impartiality in advocate appraisals

PUBLISHED May 22, 2009

Solicitor-advocates have issued a warning that declining faith in judges? impartiality in respect of ­different arms of the profession may imperil plans to assess publicly funded defence advocates.

The Legal Services Commission is testing a process to ?quality assure? all publicly funded criminal defence advocates, both barristers and solicitors. Pilot schemes are testing a variety of assessment methods, including judicial appraisal.

However, solicitors have warned that such appraisals would lack credibility if judges are believed to be biased against solicitor higher court advocates (HCAs).

The Gazette has learned of an incident in the south of England where a solicitor-advocate, who did not want to be identified, was asked by a judge whether his client had been advised that he was entitled to be represented in court by a barrister. The solicitor said: ?This sort of comment is undermining solicitor advocacy. If judges demonstrate anti-solicitor bias it must give solicitors concern when it comes to quality assessment.?

Ian Kelcey, chairman of the Law Society?s criminal law committee, questioned whether judges should be asking such questions. ?The difficulty is that it shows judges are appearing to act in a partisan way towards the bar and it makes it extremely difficult for solicitor-advocates to have faith in the independence of the judiciary when it comes to the quality assurance scheme,? he said.

Paul Marsh, Law Society president, said the Society had ?major reservations? over the use of judicial appraisal as a form of assessment.

He said: ?There is a strong perception that many judges are close to the bar and that some are positively hostile to solicitor- advocates. At the very least, there would be a perception of unfairness towards solicitor HCAs.?

He also questioned whether judges had sufficient time to do the assessment work properly.