Keeping up court appearances

The take up of higher courts rights of audience by solicitors is disappointing in terms of the number. But a steady increase is inevitable, particularly, I suspect, among those solicitors who are involved in criminal legal aid work.

I would be the first to accept that the profitability of a one-off appearance in the local crown court, probably in the face of a complete lack of judicial sympathy, is never going to appeal financially.

I also accept that this scenario will not change in the near future, though I am sure it will in the end. I believe that in years to come, legal aid certificates will be confined to one lawyer, be that a barrister or a solicitor.

But obtaining a certificate does make sense in those areas where two advocates are required. At the moment, that would normally be a silk and a junior. But it could just as easily be the solicitor and not the junior who is the second advocate, if that solicitor has a higher court certificate.

Mixed doubles, as it is referred to colloquially, is the obvious way that rights of audience for solicitors will begin to bear fruit. It also represents the most sensible development of the concept.

Many of the more junior solicitor advocates are beginning to realise, when such cases come along, that their days of sitting behind counsel no longer have any real appeal. With their vast experience over many years, they can just as easily be the second advocate and get paid more.

I remain convinced, therefore, that while the take-up may be low, it will steadily increase. And as it does so, the barriers of judicial intolerance will lower to the benefit of both client and taxpayer. Ultimately, it is cost that will determine these issues and we forget this fact at our peril. The public's tolerance of legal aid is not high and it has never understood the need for what is regarded as "double-manning". As financial pressure increases, that tolerance will be replaced by impatience.

Firms that have young lawyers on their staff and who are intent in setting out a strategy for the future should include a provision for those lawyers to obtain higher court certificates. This way, when all these changes happen, preparations are well in hand to take full advantage of them.

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