The SRA needs to sort out its priorities – part one

Posted by Jonathon Bray, from Legal Futures Associate Jonathon Bray Legal Services

Bray: surprised when the SRA dropped ‘financial stability’ from the Risk Outlook

A big part of my job is to keep up-to-date with the legal press. Especially what’s going on at the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and other regulators, so I can then give our clients a heads-up about what’s on the horizon.

As we settle into 2017, I can’t help thinking that the SRA is looking in the wrong direction.

There is not enough focus on the real risks, the things that profoundly threaten the legal profession and the public.

The SRA’s ‘priority risks’

Those familiar with the SRA will know that it publishes an annual report called the Risk Outlook. It highlights the current trends and risks faced by the profession. These are called ‘priority risks’ and they indicate where the SRA will place most of its focus in the coming year.

The 2016/17 report highlighted:

  • Lack of access to legal services;
  • Standards of service and considering vulnerability;
  • Information security (including cybercrime);
  • Independence and integrity;
  • Protecting client money;
  • Money laundering; and
  • Diversity.

(In September 2016, it also added Brexit as something of an afterthought.)

These are absolutely areas that the SRA should concentrate on. The risks are well thought-out and supported by evidence. The Risk Outlook is an important resource, and every COLP and COFA should take it seriously.

But it’s certainly not the full picture.

Glaringly obvious omissions

Some very important risks are notably missing from the Risk Outlook:

‘Access to justice’ (personal injury reform, the continued attack on legal aid, court closures) must be near the top of the agenda, surely. Section 1 of the Legal Services Act states that the ‘regulatory objectives’ – i.e. the things that the SRA should focus on – includes access to justice.

The rule of law and the proper administration of justice are fundamentally at risk, for huge numbers of people. And it is shameful that our regulators continue to turn a blind eye.

I was surprised when the SRA dropped ‘financial stability’ from the Risk Outlook. A couple of years ago (in the wake of Halliwells and other high-profile failures), it was something of a mantra. Like money laundering, is this ever something that will go away? High-profile law firm failures continue to occur, putting clients at risk and damaging public trust and confidence in the profession.

Learning and development is also something worth considering. The SRA seems to have underestimated the risk caused by this year’s CPD overhaul. Whilst the aims of ‘continuing competence’ are laudable (focusing on real learning and development, rather than the arbitrary collection of CPD points), there is a huge amount of inertia to overcome.

What about the firms that see this as an opportunity to slash training budgets? The senior partner that refuses to engage in the process and yet expects the annual declaration to be ticked? (Every firm will have one.) How about the junior lawyer who tells her supervisor she needs training and support in an area but the employer does not agree, and ticks the declaration on the bulk renewal anyway?

The mechanics of the new system have not been thought through properly, and it’s up to firms to make sure they get it right.

‘Rabbit in the headlights’ syndrome. Not a week goes past without a story in the legal press about a solicitor who gets struck off for misleading their client or the court, fabricating documents, or breaching the accounts rules.

Most of us probably don’t have a huge amount of sympathy. But look deeper at the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal decisions, and you will note a very worrying trend. Many of these are junior lawyers, unable to cope with heavy caseloads, and seemingly unsupported by their employers. They are being asked to ‘do more with less’.

I am concerned that some firms are squeezing every last bit of efficiency out of those that require the most support. In the process, we are storing up problems for our future lawyers.

But as well as these omissions (and I have surely missed a few), here is a second crucial point: So what?

Other than writing the report…. that seems to be it. I cannot think of any other initiatives – other than the odd warning notice – implemented by the regulator to address these risks. (I am prepared to be challenged on this.)

Unfortunately, those at the top of the organisation are increasingly distracted by other issues.

In part two of this article, I will set out what the SRA is likely to focus on (hint: anything but the priority risks it has identified).

    Readers Comments

  • Trevor Hellawell says:

    I wonder whether the issue of who should petition for access to justice is one of the things held hostage in the war between the SRA and the Law Society over independence?

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