Solicitors break into higher courts

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The Independent Online
BARRISTERS' historic monopoly of appearance in the higher courts in England and Wales was formally ended yesterday when solicitors were given the rights of advocacy.

The decision, announced by the Lord Chancellor's Department, means the public will be able to chose whether to have a solicitor to appear on their behalf in court or a barrister briefed by a solicitor.

A small number of solicitors who are already qualified as barristers or who sit as part-time judges will be able to appear in the higher courts in the spring. Others who wish to practise as advocates will have to apply to undergo special training and are not expected to be practising until next autumn.

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, said that a committee of himself and four senior judges had approved the application by the Law Society for its members in private practice to be given rights of audience in both civil and criminal proceedings in the higher courts: the House of Lords, the Court of Appeal, the High Court and the Crown Court. They have always been able to represent clients at lower levels such as magistrates' and juvenile courts.

Yesterday's move was made possible by the Courts and Legal Services Act of 1990. It signals a major change in traditions and may spell the end of the high fees enjoyed by some barristers who will have to compete with solicitors.

The decision was welcomed by the Law Society. Walter Merricks, its assistant secretary general, said it would be most attractive to solicitors in criminal practices funded by legal aid who regularly appear on behalf of their clients in magistrates' courts, and to solicitors engaged in financial and commercial work in the City.

Peter Goldsmith QC, vice-chairman elect of the Bar Council, said the Bar was 'ready and willing' to face competition. He emphasised that the competition must be fair, with solicitors making it clear to clients that they can choose to be represented by a barrister.

The Lord Chancellor's Department said a decision on whether rights of audience should be given to solicitors employed by the Crown Prosecution Service or elsewhere in both the public and private sectors was being deferred.

The committee has accepted a report earlier this year which said the performance of the CPS was still unsatisfactory and that it should not enjoy a monopoly of prosecution advocacy.