The dispute over paying for criminal advocacy continues to drag itself into more and more phases. With the Bar having withdrawn from the fray over legal aid cuts – however temporarily – solicitors are finding themselves on the front line, now being drawn into a battle with the Legal Aid Agency over actually finding someone to instruct.
The issue centres on very high cost criminal cases, known as VHCCs. Solicitors are suddenly finding it impossible to find an ‘appropriate’ advocate in the time scale required by the LAA – principally because barristers are refusing to take them on.
The LAA has sent a letter to solicitors acting in such cases threatening sanctions if they do not take “all reasonable steps” to secure representation. Such steps could include “…demonstrably exploring all possible, reasonable avenues of instructing an advocate, including approaching the [Public Defender Service] and solicitor-advocates”.
The letter was described as “completely unreasonable” by the chairman of the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association, Bill Waddington.
Mr Waddington said: “The solicitor has a duty to their client to ensure they have representation of sufficient quality and skill to be able to do the case.”
Solicitors would be in breach of their duty to their client if they instructed “…any Tom, Dick or Harry who happens to own a wig and gown”.
• The issue of the speedy appointment of advocates was one brought to the fore by the report by Sir Bill Jeffrey into Independent Criminal Advocacy in England and Wales. In general Sir Bill’s review was about whether the advocacy system was providing a competitive or quality service. Oddly, the MoJ’s own release on the subject referred to the “market in criminal advocacy”.
The response to the publication of the report by the various branches of the legal profession was described in the Law Society Gazette as “Advocates at war”. In a joint statement the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association and the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association described the response of the Bar Council as “…entirely preposterous entirely self-interested hubristic triumphalism”. The solicitors' bodies had previously welcomed the report.
• A recent controversy involving the British Medical Journal serves as a reminder that even experts can get things wrong. That august journal has withdrawn statements made by contributors that the risk of suffering side effects after taking statins to reduce cholesterol and help prevent heart disease are as high as 18-20%. The BMJ has also launched an investigation into whether the entire article, by Prof John Abrahams of Harvard Medical School and others and published last October, should be withdrawn. The issue for many of us here is not that erroneous figures should occasionally find their way into opinion pieces, but that those articles are peer-reviewed by other experts, who also failed to spot the discrepancy.
As my old Uncle Fred used to say: “Believe nothing that you hear and only half of what you see.” Mind you, he was wrong.