Public need information about firms’ SRA records so they can “vote with their feet”

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2 August 2010

Blowing the whistle: call for leniency programme for lawyers who inform on schemes

Clients should be given the information they need to identify firms with poor compliance histories so that they “can punish them by voting with their feet”, the Legal Services Consumer Panel has said.

It also called on the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) to introduce a leniency programme for solicitors who blow the whistle on misconduct in which they are involved with others, and for recording complaints and completing CPD requirements to be a precondition to being allowed to practise.

In its response to the SRA’s consultation on outcomes-focused regulation (OFR), the panel said the SRA should exploit opportunities to publish information about the compliance record of firms. “The SRA will be expected to collect data on first-tier complaints, which would provide valuable information about the extent to which firms are achieving OFR. The SRA should publish this information, mirroring the Financial Services Authority, which requires firms to publish information on how they handle complaints.”

This would “harness consumer power to spur solicitors to deliver the principles” underpinning the new form of regulation.

The Office for Legal Complaints is still considering whether it should publish firms’ complaints records, an idea mooted by the Legal Complaints Service in the past and strongly resisted by the Law Society. The service eventually dropped the idea, leaving it to the office to take on.

The panel highlighted the importance of improved whistleblowing from both lawyers and the public. It said: “The legal profession is highly networked, which means solicitors may know about misconduct by their fellow professionals, but equally be reluctant to pass on such information to the SRA. Effective whistle-blowing could provide a valuable source of intelligence. Furthermore, the SRA should consider building on its regulatory settlement agreements policy via a leniency regime for individuals or firms who alert it to misconduct by others in which they are also involved.”

It said there would be value in the SRA maintaining a contact centre to hear about problems needing action – for example, consumers wanting to report malpractice, although unable to pursue redress as they have not lost out financially.

The panel welcomed the SRA’s proposals to expand the information it collects from firms and to link this to the annual practising renewal process. “Such information will assist in delivering regulatory outcomes, provided that compliance with certain requirements, such as recording first-tier complaints or completion of CPD hours, is a precondition of authorisation to practise.”

It continued: “Firms may complain about the burden this creates. However, good data can reduce burdens if it informs a risk-based approach. For example, information provided by the SRA about referral arrangements showed that a fraction of firms were over-reliant on a couple of introducers for work and so the independence of advice was not at risk.”

The panel confirmed the view of its chairwoman, Dr Dianne Hayter, as revealed by Legal Futures, that CPD may not be a sufficiently stringent test of a practitioner’s ongoing competence and that some form of competence testing may be required. It said: “A close examination of the CPD system is needed to determine whether improvements are needed. The panel’s initial view is that more far-reaching measures, such as peer review or revalidation, might be required.

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