Dissatisfaction with the response of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) to allegations of misconduct by solicitors is the most common source of complaints against the authority, with the introduction of risk-based regulation making the situation worse, its independent reviewer has found.
The first annual report of the Independent Complaints Resolution Service (ICRS) – a body which deals with complaints against the SRA which are not resolved internally – also identified the inability of third parties to complain about solicitors to either the Legal Ombudsman or the SRA as a cause of frustration to consumers.
The ICRS received 88 contacts about the SRA in the year to September 2011, and opened case files on 81 of them; consumers were the source in 60, and solicitors in 21. This was more than expected, it said, but small in the context of the number of contacts made with the SRA over the course of 12 months.
“In general, we acknowledge that this indicates a high degree of satisfaction with the work of the SRA,” the report said. “Moreover, the SRA is able to settle the majority of complaints internally. However, in a number of cases where people are dissatisfied, our experience is that it is very difficult for the SRA to resolve matters to their satisfaction.”
The ICRS said the single issue that cropped up most frequently was people feeling that the SRA had failed to take seriously their allegations of misconduct against a solicitor. The number grew with the introduction of outcomes-focused regulation and a risk-based approach, which means that the SRA will not pursue a misconduct report if it is considered insufficiently serious or otherwise not in the public interest. But it will retain the information.
The report said the SRA’s practice is not to tell informants about the outcome of their contact. “It is very difficult to convey this message to informants in a way that will satisfy them that their concerns have been properly considered and taken seriously… In some cases we have found that the tone and style of some of the correspondence relating to this policy has not been helpful; neither have blanket refusals to engage in communication with complainants.”
The ICRS said there was no evidence that reports to the SRA are not taken seriously, but advised the regulator on ways to communicate better and warned that it “needs to be sensitive to the perception that it is unwilling to respond to legitimate complaints, and intent on ‘looking after its own’ – the solicitors who fund the SRA”.
In its response, the SRA said it recognised that the very low level of formal complaints “does not necessarily mean that those who have not complained are happy with the new approach and we are exploring ways of assessing the levels of dissatisfaction”. It outlined a series of measures it has taken to improve its approach, including better standard letters and a more tailored approach for “individuals in appropriate cases, such as those who are vulnerable”.
When it came to complaints by solicitors, often about the fairness of the disciplinary process, the ICRS said that overall the SRA’s procedures are “clearly defined, balanced and fair and that decisions are based on an objective view of the evidence available”.