New Birkbeck advocacy research to inform regulators’ approach

The Institute for Criminal Policy Research undertook interviews with 50 judges in criminal courts to prepare new study on the quality of advocacy.

Judges in the Crown Court believe advocacy is generally competent but some skills are in decline, according to new research undertaken by Birkbeck’s Institute for Criminal Policy Research.

In a report compiled for the Bar Standards Board and the Solicitors Regulation Authority, ICPR found that while the most judges viewed the current quality of advocacy as generally competent, there were some areas which were in need of improvement.

The study, Judicial Perceptions of the Quality of Criminal Advocacy, has been published by the Bar Standards Board and the Solicitors Regulation Authority and explores the views of the judiciary on the current quality, provision and regulation of advocacy – by both solicitor-advocates and barristers – in the Crown Court.

It found that advocates' skills in dealing with young and vulnerable witnesses are improving largely. However many judges expressed concerns about what they perceived to be a general decline in advocacy standards, and particularly about advocates taking on cases beyond their level of experience

There was also uncertainty among judges about when and how they should report poor standards to the appropriate regulators.

Dr Jessica Jacobson, Director of ICPR, said: “The study on criminal advocacy, conducted by ICPR on behalf of the Bar Standards Board and Solicitors Regulation Authority, entailed interviews with 50 serving High Court and circuit judges.

“When asked their views on the quality of the advocacy they see in court on a day-to-day basis, most of the judges told us that advocates are generally competent or adequate. Many of the judges, however, reported having witnessed a decline in standards over recent years. It is also striking that many talked of one aspect of advocacy having improved: advocates were said to handle vulnerable court users in a more skilful and sensitive manner than they typically did in the past.”

Both organisations which commissioned the work will build on the results to inform their future work.

Paul Philip, chief executive of the SRA, said: “Everyone involved in legal proceedings has the right to expect that those representing them in court have the necessary skills and expertise required to do so effectively.

“We will be working with our fellow regulators and the profession to ensure that quality is maintained and people receive a good service.”

Vanessa Davies, director general of the BSB, said: “I am pleased that judges find that the quality of advocacy which they experience in the criminal courts is generally competent and sometimes very good.  But they also acknowledge that some of the pressures on advocates, not least current financial pressures, do threaten that quality and that there are some examples of poor performance. We remain determined to ensure that standards of advocacy are maintained and improved where needed.”

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