Guest blog by Crispin Passmore, executive director for policy at the Solicitors Regulation Authority
The findings earlier this month of solicitors’ knowledge and understanding of the SRA Handbook – as detailed in work done by Dr Steven Vaughan – present a worrying yet unsurprising picture.
The good news is that we are already on the case. The problems he highlights align with the reasons for starting our ‘Looking to the Future’ review of how we regulate last November. That work includes a fundamental overhaul of the Handbook.
The findings, for those who missed them, suggested the knowledge of the Handbook among City lawyers was “very poor” and that they relied upon their compliance officers to ‘do’ compliance for them as a firm and as individuals.
Perhaps the lack of understanding is unsurprising when you consider that the current SRA Code of Conduct is 30 pages long and is supported by another 400-plus pages of rules and regulations. That’s 200 pages fewer than just two years ago, but it is still too much to expect anyone to remember it all.
Given that the current code applies equally to individuals, firms, managers and employees, is it any wonder that busy solicitors in City firms just turn to their COLP for guidance? But each individual solicitor must take responsibility for their own behaviour and action: their COLP cannot make ethical decisions for them.
Firms are important too. Business and its leaders set the tone for an organisation – through their behaviours even more so than their words. But neither side can expect to hide behind the other. Any reliance on COLPs that flows from the current Handbook shows that our review cannot come soon enough.
Clarity is a must, so a code of conduct that applies to individual solicitors needs to be distinct from the code for firms we regulate. Solicitors need to be clear about their personal obligation to be competent and ethical. Firms need to ensure they create the right culture and provide the right systems to ensure they deliver on their obligations. A simpler, clearer and a more user-friendly Handbook could help solicitors reconnect with the content.
And this is not just about the Handbook – it’s about our regulatory model.
We are delivering a modern approach to regulation that focuses on our core purpose of looking after those consumers that need our help and protecting the rule of law and administration of justice. We know that regulation costs money – money that consumers ultimately pay – so we need to ensure that our rules and regulations are proportionate and targeted.
Too much regulation can stifle innovation and undermine growth, so we want to remove prescription wherever we can. And, of course, our regulation can play an active part in developing a modern, competitive legal market that is good for the public, the profession and the economy.
Specific changes we could make include supporting in-house solicitors who want to do pro bono work. And for the first time, allowing solicitors to provide non-reserved services outside authorised entities. That would provide wider employment opportunities, give solicitors more flexibility and increase access to justice. Consumers will be able to access high-quality services from a solicitor much more easily and in a more affordable way.
We are starting with a reworking of the Principles, the Code of Conduct, the Practice Framework Regulations and the SRA Accounts Rules. They will establish clear standards, be easier to understand and navigate. And we plan to support the leaner more accessible Handbook with resources such as case studies, toolkits and better information for the public.
Yet we will not get this right working in a silo. We laid out our initial thinking in November to kickstart a debate. Since then, we have been gathering evidence and feedback. We need to involve as much of the profession as possible in developing our approach. We have already set up a specific reference group to assist with our work, and more participants are welcome. Information on how to get involved, as well as updates on our thinking, are available at www.sra.org.uk/futures.
We will formally consult on the proposed changes in the summer. There will be plenty of opportunities before and during this consultation for everyone to tell us what they think of our proposals.
A shorter, clearer, more principle-focused Handbook – which makes a clear distinction between what is required by firms and what is required by individuals – should help everyone. It will support our drive for an open and competitive market, in the public interest, as set out by the Treasury and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in the autumn.
And hopefully it will mean that Dr Vaughan will be able to report a very different picture in years to come.