The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is planning not only to combine its two law firm panels into one, but to give all the legal work involved to a single firm, Legal Futures understands – leaving solicitors who have acted as prosecutors for decades out in the cold and questioning whether the regulator is taking the wrong approach.
We have been told that the SRA is still negotiating with a single law firm – believed to be south London practice Capsticks. It had been expected to announce the results of the tender in January.
The SRA currently has one panel handling disciplinary proceedings and a second providing litigation and legal advice services.
Launching the tender last summer, it said it wanted a single panel of firms that were able to offer all the services it required, meaning in effect that those who specialised just in disciplinary matters would be unable to tender.
Jonathan Goodwin, a solicitor-advocate who has prosecuted cases for the SRA and its predecessors for over 20 years, did not tender for the panel and now specialises in defence work.
He said: “The problem with having one law firm is that you lose the previous breadth of experience across a number of firms.
“People at different firms operate in different ways. They have different styles and bring a wealth of experience. With one firm, you will have one style, one view and all your eggs in one basket.
“If a conflict of interest arises, how will it be resolved? If a complaint is made about the law firm to the SRA by a client or a solicitor, it would have to be investigated. The SRA may say it would use its in-house team, but that would not be independent.”
Mr Goodwin added that he had taken more cases to the tribunal than any other solicitor. He said that if the SRA went ahead with its plans, it would lose a “huge amount of experience”.
He said cost was “clearly a factor”, but choosing a single firm may lead to concerns over quality, and would mean the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal would “see the same people all the time”.
Mr Goodwin went on: “There will be no flexibility in the system and the SRA will be stuck with one firm and one approach. It will be interesting to see how this is viewed by the profession. There may be some surprise.”
David Barton, another solicitor-advocate with over 20 years of experience in prosecuting cases for the SRA, said that as a sole practitioner he had “nothing like” the resources needed to tender for the combined panel.
“As a sole practitioner you get to know intimately how a solicitor’s office functions, and how a solicitor not only thinks but ought to think.
“You need to be able to tell the SRA if you think it needs to rethink certain aspects of a case. The SRA has decided that this kind of experience, knowledge and skill is no longer required.
“Internally it would be much easier for them to manage a single firm, and it would be driver for them to do as much as possible in-house.
“I don’t know what proportion of cases would be outsourced under the new arrangements – probably the more challenging ones in terms of complexity and quantity of documents.
“They must be intending to use counsel much more, but this would be expensive.”
A spokesman for the SRA said any negotiations with law firms about the panel could not be commented on, “as we have yet to announce the outcome of this process” and the information would be commercially sensitive.
“As well as value for money, we challenged firms involved in the process to be innovative in their thinking. We can therefore talk about any additional benefits when the contract is announced.
“Our existing arrangements had rolling extensions built in to them, allowing us to continue as normal until a decision is made.”
Meanwhile, the SRA last week said it would consult in the summer on its new enforcement policy, having finally published all the detailed findings of its ‘Question of trust’ exercise, which sought the views of the public and profession on how seriously they viewed different types of rule breaches.
The main findings were revealed last summer, and while there were around 5,400 responses as part of its outreach work, the SRA revealed last week that just 34 responses were received to its formal consultation in the four months to 31 January 2016.
The SRA said the results of all its work showed that the both the public and profession supported the current approach the SRA takes, where misuse of client money, criminal activities and/or dishonesty are seen as the most serious offences. Evidence of clear intent to do wrong was also a key factor.
The public viewed information security and competence issues more seriously than the profession did, while solicitors considered ‘self-dealing’ – acting in their own, rather than the client’s, interests – money laundering, bribery and falsifying a CV as the most serious rule breaches.