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MoJ Targets In-House Advocates

By Chloe Smith » The Ministry of Justice has floated plans to restrict litigators from instructing advocates within the same firm. In a consultation on criminal advocacy, the MoJ said it was looking at proposals to prevent a conflict of interest when solicitors advise clients on the choice of advocate. It suggested that barring in-house instructions could reduce the influence of financial incentives on the choice of advocate. The proposal was published as firms awaited the outcome of their bids for new legal aid contracts. It is understood that some firms have incorporated taking advocacy in-house into business models when applying for contracts. The MoJ also suggested requiring litigators to make clients aware if an advocate is employed in-house, and changing the Legal Aid Agency’s contracts to emphasise the need for impartial advice. Other proposals in the consultation include a statutory ban on criminal referral fees. Both the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the Bar Standards Board pointed out that such fees are already barred by regulators. Justice minister Shailesh Vara said: ‘The payment of referral fees to secure instruction is unacceptable – which is why we want to change the law in order to tackle this issue. The guiding principle in advising clients on their choice of advocate must always be the competence and experience of the advocate – rather than their willingness to pay a referral fee.’ The government also proposed a publicly funded panel scheme for criminal defence advocates, which could be modelled on the Crown Prosecution Service Panel. Law Society chief executive Catherine Dixon said: ‘We are supportive of a consistent level of high-quality advocacy. We were anticipating that this would be achieved through the introduction of the Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates. We will study the proposals carefully and wish to ensure that there is no duplication or unnecessarily burdensome regulation, especially in light of recent significant fee reductions.

[Courtesy: The Law Society Gazette].