Government plans to make the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) totally separate from the Law Society must not be to the detriment of professional involvement in setting standards, the society’s chief executive has said.
Catherine Dixon also said that the public interest activities of the society justified its continuing ability to levy the profession through practising fees to fund that work.
The government announced in the Autumn Statement that legal regulators would be completely independent. Currently, the Legal Services Act 2007 lists the Law Society as the approved regulator of solicitors, and it delegates it regulatory function to the SRA, which is part of the Law Society ‘group’.
In the second part of her interview with Legal Futures, Ms Dixon said it was not entirely clear what the government has in mind, but confirmed the society continued to support “independent enforcement of regulation and an independent complaints system” as a way to maintain public confidence in solicitors.
“But we would have concerns about totally separating professional standards – including entry into the profession – from the profession itself.”
Sir David Clementi, in his 2004 report that led to the Act, “recognised that if you want to get buy-in and you really want to drive high standards, then you do need to have professional engagement”, she said.
But then Sir David also found the Law Society council sometimes put the profession’s interest ahead of the public interest.
Ms Dixon responded that she saw no conflict. “If you get high professional standards and a better standard of service for the public and for the client that has to be in their interest – so it’s a question of getting the balance right.”
She continued: “What we need to think about is issues around legal education and training, entering into the profession and the awarding of the title solicitor. If actually that is awarded and the standards around that are set totally independently from any professional involvement, then I fail to see how it is a profession and I fail to see how you can really drive some of those standards.”
There is also an international risk, she explained “[Solicitors] make a massive contribution to the economy and I think there’s the reputation of England and Wales as jurisdiction of choice that’s been built up over many years. If there’s a perception that effectively you’ve got a state-regulated legal profession… then there are potential reputation issues.”
Ms Dixon acknowledged that the move to complete separation may also raise the question of whether the society should be able to continue taking a significant chunk (around 25-30%) of practising fees to fund so-called permitted purposes – activities which the Legal Services Act considers to be in the public interest although not regulatory.
Solicitors have to pay this irrespective of whether they are actually members of the society – which they are under no obligation to be.
“The Law Society has got a public interest role – it’s quite clear in the legislation what that is,” Ms Dixon said, highlighting areas such as enabling access to justice and upholding the rule of law and human rights. As a result, it was decided that the profession should “proportionately contribute” to this work, rather than leaving it to individuals who choose to make a contribution.
But she added: “It’s also really key that we can demonstrate as an organisation that we’re offering an efficient, effective service that is value for money for our members. That is very much a driver for me. I’m also keen that we do everything we can to alleviate the pressure on the PC fee through some of the commercial activities that I’m keen we develop.”