The Millennium Development Goal 5 - reducing maternal mortality by 75% - is unlikely to be met globally and for the majority of low-income countries. At this time of heightened concern to scale-up services for mothers and babies, it is crucial that not only shortfalls in the quantity of care - in terms of location and financial access - are addressed, but also the quality. Reductions in maternal and perinatal mortality in the immediate term depend in large part on the timely delivery of effective practices in the management of life-threatening complications. Such practices require a functioning health system - including skilled and motivated providers engaged with the women and communities whom they serve. Assuring the quality of this system, the services and the care that women receive requires many inputs, including effective and efficient monitoring mechanisms. The purpose of this article is to summarise the practical steps involved in applying one such mechanism, criterion-based clinical audit (CBCA), and to highlight recent lessons from its application in developing countries. Like all audit tools, the ultimate worth of CBCA relates to the action it stimulates in the health system and among providers.