With crime falling, and criminal proceedings simpler, there is less work for criminal advocates to do, with more advocates than even a few years ago. Yet the report found disquiet among judges about the capabilities of some of the advocates appearing before them.
The report is the product of an independent review commissioned by the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, and undertaken by former civil servant Sir Bill Jeffrey.
Its specific recommendations include:
- improved advocacy training for solicitors
- encouragement to the criminal Bar to be willing to adjust its way of doing business to enable it to compete for legal aid contracts
- the timely assignment of advocates
It also draws attention to the longer term implications, if current trends towards the use of solicitor advocates and away from the criminal Bar continue. Sir Bill is clear that it would be neither feasible nor desirable to wind the clock back on rights of audience. Solicitor advocates are a valuable and established part of the scene. But if the Bar’s share of the work continues to decline, as the current generation moves to retirement, the supply of top-end advocates to undertake the most complex trials would be in doubt.
The report offers two broad ways forward for the criminal Bar:
- to adjust its model of working to compete for legal aid contracts; or
- to move to a system in which graduate lawyers obtained their early experience in legal firms and joined a smaller, specialist criminal Bar later in their careers
Simply carrying on as at present in an attempt to keep intact every aspect of the traditional model is not a viable option.
Sir Bill said:
I have tried in the report to describe dispassionately how the system of criminal advocacy is working at the moment. Although my remit was from the Justice Secretary, the issues are as much for the profession as for the Government. I hope the description I offer is one the profession will recognise. Short-term, there are some changes which would improve the position. But the longer-term prospect is one which should concern both the profession and Government. Although feelings are running high at the moment, I would urge both to reflect on this report and use it as a basis for finding consensus on the best way forward. This will require determination and a readiness to innovate. The quality of advocacy in our criminal justice system is a precious national asset, in which the public has as much of a stake as the legal profession.
Notes for editors
- Sir Bill Jeffrey is a former senior civil servant with wide experience of justice and national security. He served as Political Director in the Northern Ireland Office from 1998 to 2002 and was Security and Intelligence Coordinator at the time of the attacks on London in July 2005. He was Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence from 2005 until his retirement in November 2010. The earlier part of his career was spent mainly in the Home Office.
- For more information contact the Ministry of Justice press office on 020 3334 3506, or email email@example.com.