If you’re scared of OFR, perhaps you haven’t been listening

Samantha Barrass, executive director of supervision, risk and standards at the Solicitors Regulation Authority, responds to Michaela Hardwicke's blog last week, The scary new world of OFR

Barrass: much of the SRA's work with firms will be theme-based in future

Last week on Legal Futures, Michaela Hardwicke reported on “a huge amount of frustration over the lack of guidance from the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA)” in terms of preparing the regulated community for outcomes-focused regulation (OFR).

In her blog, she also claims to have “clear evidence that a large percentage of the profession does not understand that OFR is a completely different animal to anything we have yet seen, but this is not their fault”.

In her opinion, we at the SRA “could have done a lot more to prepare the profession for what is to come”.

This was the perspective of 60 members of the regulated community attending a seminar, presumably led by Ms Hardwicke.

We do not routinely respond to blogs – but when it’s a posting significantly riddled with errors and misconceptions, we feel we need to put the record straight.

While we are delighted to hear that there was a “natural desire to understand and comply with the new regulatory regime”, it is wrong to suggest that the SRA provided a lack of guidance.

We thought it would be helpful to remind readers what we did to help firms prepare:

  • 28 roadshows over a two-year period in England and Wales;
  • 16 major consultations, including two on the Handbook;
  • 15 webinars;
  • The launch of a relationship management programme in autumn 2010;
  • A pilot supervision programme;
  • Reference group meetings on themes such as risk, ABS, and COLPS and COFAs;
  • Extensive media activity;
  • Speaking engagements at the likes of conferences, seminars and Law Society meetings;
  • Meetings with niche groups such as sole practitioners; and
  • Significant web information, including the publication ‘OFR at a glance’.

And, of course, there is ongoing support from the SRA’s ethics guidance helpline for any firm that wishes to talk through any aspect of its approach to delivering the principles and outcomes. Indeed, in the course of 2010, the helpline took 56,902 calls.

A further mischief is the suggestion that firms will need annually to provide evidence to the SRA of compliance with all of the principles and outcomes. This confuses two things:

  1. The fundamental requirement of OFR that all firms assure themselves that they are delivering the principles and outcomes, in the context of their practice and client base; and
  2. Annual requirements (which we will be consulting on early in 2012) to report targeted factual information to support our ability to identify emerging risks. For example, information about firms’ client bases so we can identify which firms service a more vulnerable client base.

The SRA regulates over 11,000 firms and 130,000 individuals. We need to use our limited resources in the most efficient way to tackle the greatest risks. The exercise implied by Ms Hardwicke has never been on the cards – it is well beyond our resources and would not represent a proportionate use of our time. Setting this type of hare running is unhelpful.

In practice, much of our work with firms will be theme-based in future, reflecting areas of emerging risk, and not on the generality of a firm’s compliance. For example, current issues of concern to us include the client care of vulnerable clients, particularly given the changes in legal aid, and conveyancing.

If we’re engaging with firms, it is most likely to be in relation to particular topics, such as these, when we will seek to be confident that the firm has taken an ethical and informed approach to ensuring the relevant principles and outcomes are being met.

  • The SRA’s ethics helpline can be contacted on 0870 606 2577, Monday to Friday, 9am until 5pm.


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