Exclusive: SRA seeks Law Society approval for £22m investment in new IT system

Townsend: programme will allow the SRA to become more risk-based

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) will this week ask the Law Society Council for around £22 million to invest in a new IT system, Legal Futures can reveal.

The SRA’s ‘Enabling Programme’ (EP) is aimed at providing the SRA with robust regulatory data that chief executive Antony Townsend said will allow it to “assess risk, ensure regulatory compliance and accountability, demonstrate consistency of approach and drive performance management”.

The EP is seen as a critical element of the move to outcomes-focused regulation and alternative business structures. Mr Townsend said this will help usher in “a different, new relationship with the SRA as the EP helps it to become more risk-based and proactive, targeted and focused on what matters”.

It will also enable the SRA to provide the profession with web-based access to services, such as allowing solicitors to update and manage their details online and make applications (for example, renewals and admission) online. There will be a secure payment facility.

Poor and ageing IT systems have long hampered the whole Law Society and Mr Townsend said the EP will enable the SRA to source, configure and implement commercial off-the-shelf systems that will provide electronic document and records management, customer relationship management and content management functionality. This in turn will mean the SRA can implement new business processes, organisational change, training and communications.

There will be broader benefits across the whole Law Society, Mr Townsend said. “The EP will deliver much of the technology and process capability needed for the Law Society professional body to implement improvements to its membership services. It expects significant benefits, both in terms of improved revenue and efficiency savings.”

It is estimated that the EP will pay for itself within about five years. Chief operating officer Mike Jeacock told last month’s SRA board meeting that savings would come from changes such as moving practising certificate renewal online, rather than having to employ 30 temporary staff each year for four months to process paper applications.

The £22 million figure was announced at the May meeting, which was more than 50% higher than the SRA’s £14 million estimate of the cost of the EP a year earlier. Mr Townsend explained: “The original funding, agreed in March 2009, was based on explicit assumptions and risks. It was made clear that these would need to be tested. The testing of the assumptions and risks has now been completed. On the basis of this analysis, both the funding needs and the realisable benefits of the EP are now known to be significantly higher than originally estimated. The result is that the programme will pay for itself sooner than originally estimated. The revised business case request for funding, now being considered by the Law Society, reflects this.”

Mr Townsend said the revised business case has been independently reviewed and recommended for approval. If approved, the EP is planned to be completed in December 2011. Were it not approved, he said “major alternative investment” would still be needed to provide the capability and functionality necessary for the regulation of alternative business structures and the introduction of outcomes-focused regulation. “It is very likely that costs would increase,” he added.

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