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Exclusive: Law Society scraps external adjudication for freedom of information disputes

Law Society: no requirement to respond to FoI requests

The Law Society has scrapped external freedom of information (FoI) adjudications in favour of reviews by an “independent member of staff” based at Chancery Lane, it has emerged.

The society is not a public body subject to the Freedom of Information Act, but its previous code aimed to ensure that the society and the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) responded to FoI requests as if they were covered by the Act, which meant having an independent reviewer akin to the Information Commissioner.

FoI adjudications by the society’s external adjudicator, Adam Sowerbutts, were posted on the society’s website and sometimes contained criticisms of both the society and the SRA.

In its new FoI code, adopted last month, the society said that anyone unhappy with its response to a request could have their concerns reviewed by a “more senior and independent member of staff” at Chancery Lane.

The code states: “By independent, we mean someone who has not been previously involved in your request.

“This person may need to contact you to confirm the nature of your concern. Once they have done so, they will contact you within 20 working days and let you know what will happen.

“The decision of the independent reviewer is final and there is no further avenue for appeal. It is also important for you to note that as this is a voluntary code, the Information Commissioner is unable to consider your complaint.”

Mr Sowerbutts, the society’s former FoI adjudicator, is a solicitor and, according to the society’s Find a Solicitor website, an employee at the Information Commissioner’s Office in Cheshire.

HIs two-year contract with Law Society, seen by Legal Futures, came to an end last month. Mr Sowerbutts was paid £1,000 per referral where no more than 7.5 hours were required for him to make a determination, and a further £100 per hour if the case was complex and needed more time.

A Law Society spokesman said: “On 24 March, the Law Society of England and Wales launched its new information code of practice. The previous version had been in place since 2005 and predated the creation of the SRA.

“Our new code no longer covers regulatory issues as they are now part of the remit of the SRA which has developed its own code.

“There is no requirement for the Law Society to respond to FoI requests as it is not a designated public authority under the Freedom of Information Act. However, we believe in being open and accountable.”

The SRA, which has been handling its own FoI requests since the beginning of 2016, introduced its separate FoI code in January this year.

Under the code, those unhappy with their decisions can ask the SRA’s information compliance team for a review, which the SRA aims to carry out within 20 days.

People unhappy with their reviews can make a further complaint to the SRA’s complaints team, and if they are still unhappy can take their complaint to the organisation’s independent reviewer, the Ombudsman Service, based in Warrington.

A spokesman for the SRA said the regulator wanted to introduce a “better and more effective” way of dealing with FoI requests, and said reviews would examine whether the proper procedures had been followed rather than the decision itself.

Like the Law Society, the SRA is not a public body for the purposes of the Freedom of Information Act.