The Council for Licensed Conveyancers (CLC) is making greater use of the range of its enforcement powers, rather than going straight to full disciplinary action, chief executive Sheila Kumar has said.
Meanwhile, CLC chair Dame Janet Paraskeva said it would step up efforts to encourage firms and lawyers from other parts of the legal profession to switch to CLC regulation.
The pair were speaking as the CLC’s consultation on refreshed ethical principles and the CLC’s new strategic objectives closed.
This included introducing an explicit requirement on licensed conveyancers to treat customers fairly and making expanding its community a key strategic objective in the coming years.
Ms Kumar said that the post-lockdown conveyancing boom did not lead to a growth in compliance failures: “We were very clear with our advice that firms should not take on more work than they could cope with, and the message seems to have got through.
“At the same time, we are working on ensuring that, when we do have to take regulatory action – and we’re talking about a small number of such actions relative to the number of firms and set in the context of the huge number of transactions CLC lawyers handle – we use the most appropriate of the range of regulatory interventions available to us.”
She explained that the first step in most regulatory matters – except where immediate action is required, in response to actual harm having already occurred or there being an immediate threat to clients – was ‘assisted compliance’, meaning the CLC worked with the firm to bring it back into line within a reasonable timeframe.
But this timeframe was “not infinite” and required a clear commitment to put things right.
“In the past, there has sometimes been a tendency to go from assisted compliance to full-on enforcement, meaning it could take too long to ensure compliance.
“We are now making more use of the other powers we have, such as warning letters and enforcement determination decisions [an agreed outcome], to speed up the process where firms are not moving quickly enough.
“It’s a much more calibrated approach that delivers the result that we need more quickly and proportionately.”
She added that the CLC has intensified its monitoring and inspection of firms, with its regulatory supervision managers in regular contact with them to head off any potential problems, now supported by a new cadre of more junior regulatory supervision officers to deal with lower-level compliance work.
The CLC has for some years encouraged firms run by solicitors and chartered legal executives to join its community and Dame Janet conceded that progress has been slow because of issues such as run-off cover and lender panels, as well as Covid.
But these have now been resolved and the number was picking up, she said.
“It’s about choice. We are not expecting a great rush but we are starting to see a slow and steady increase in switchers. We know the business of conveyancing. We know probate. If that’s what people need regulated, then we are best placed to provide it.
“We are also seeing a healthy pipeline of future conveyancers, with some 300 students now studying for the qualification.”
Dame Janet called on licensed conveyancers to form a stronger representative voice and leadership to promote the profession in ways that the regulator could not.
She added that, though the diversity of the licensed conveyancer community was “good”, there was still work needed to improve the representation of women and Black and minority ethnic lawyers in particular at senior levels.
Ms Kumar said the CLC has also been sharing the lessons from the Simplify security incident last year and explained why it resisted calls to intervene in the practice.
“We had people on the ground at Simplify from the start and kept up constant communication to ensure clients’ interests were served.
“We remain comfortable that allowing the firm to sort out the problem was a better solution than the CLC stepping in – it was not a problem that we could have resolved any more quickly and, indeed, an intervention would have slowed down the recovery process and would not have been in the consumer interest.
“What the incident has done is shine a light on the vulnerabilities of any system, however good. We have issued advice to firms in our recent Risk Agenda and will continue to spread the word of what firms need to do to minimise the risk and consequences of such attacks.”
The CLC also announced that former council member Teresa Perchard – a consumer advocate who is a former director of policy and advocacy at Citizens Advice – was assembling a consumer reference group to provide insight and advice to the CLC on policy and practice.