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‘Quality assurance’ for criminal advocates is an expensive waste of time
What’s the difference between a Qasa and a quasar? Well, the Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates (Qasa) is the odd progeny of the Joint Advocacy Group (joint, that is, between the Bar Standards Board (BSB), the SRA and ILEX Professional Standards). It aims to grade the performance of advocates in the criminal courts in England and Wales, and it will constitute professional misconduct to practise in crime without being graded for the level of the case being undertaken.
Her Majesty’s judges, like examiners in so many forensic driving tests, are themselves to be engaged in grading the advocates. Well, they had nothing better to do, did they?
So far, so notorious. The criminal bar, outraged, is likely to boycott Qasa, widely seen as a Trojan horse for price-competitive tendering, with Crown Court advocacy performed by the cheapest minimally competent representative. In his letter resigning from the BSB’s Professional Conduct Committee Jonathan Kinnear QC urged BSB chairman Baroness Deech to back away from the precipice. For her part, Deech asserts Qasa will be such that most criminal barristers will “sail through it” - leaving one wondering how high or low the standard is going to be, and what is the point.
Why is a profession once adorned by Erskine and Kentridge going down this road?
Apart from anecdote, the BSB relies on some peculiar explanations and publishes some ‘FAQs’ to summarise these. Criminal work, apparently, attracts “a mix of solicitors, barristers and legal executives who have taken different routes for (sic) training”. It “frequently involves vulnerable individuals” and “financial pressures are putting pressure on quality”. These factors are hardly unique to crime, but the fact that civil work in family, personal injury, immigration, insolvency and employment cases has like characteristics is not, apparently, relevant.
So civil practitioners remain Qasa-free for the moment. But if the justification for imposing Qasa on the criminal bar has force, why not extend it?
Does the civil practitioner lose out? The BSB optimistically tells us that Qasa “should have” benefits for the bar, although these seem to have been overlooked by those most affected. Competent advocates will, apparently, not need to compete for work with those who are not competent at their level. Competing with the incompetent is usually the least of anyone’s worries but it is at least odd that this advantage is available only in criminal work. Deprived of a Qasa seal of approval, the civil practitioner will just have to grub along with old-fashioned tools such as legal acumen, integrity, industry, efficiency and client service.
If it ever gets going, Qasa will be reviewed. It seems unlikely to last; rather, as Kinnear fears, in three years the BSB will be surveying the destruction it has wrought.
So back to my question what is the difference between a Qasa and a quasar? Well, one is a strange phenomenon that uses up huge amounts of energy until it disappears into a black hole - the other you can see with a telescope.