Failure to undertake continuous professional development (CPD) will be an “aggravating factor” when enforcement decisions are made against those guilty of incompetence, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has said.
The warning comes in an application made by the regulator to the Legal Services Board (LSB) just before Christmas, seeking approval for rule changes which would sweep away the current hours-based CPD system.
Some solicitors are concerned that this would encourage some firms to abandon their responsibilities completely and could damage the reputation of the profession.
“We are clear that we must take a realistic and pragmatic approach to regulating competence within the profession,” the SRA said.
“We do not wish to introduce monitoring and compliance arrangements that significantly increase the cost of regulation or impose further burdens on those we regulate.”
However, the SRA said while it would not be “possible or desirable” to pick up on every instance of incompetence, it would seek “proactively to identify” any significant risks or trends.
Where there was serious incompetence or “repeated instances of incompetence” by an individual who could not “demonstrate that they have taken a responsible approach to their learning and development”, this would be an “aggravating factor” in relation to enforcement action.
The SRA said it would also take action where it identified a “cluster of issues” relating to competence in a firm, and would investigate whether the firm had “appropriate systems for identifying development needs, training staff and identifying the impact of learning”.
If these were not in place, the SRA warned that regulatory action would be “more robust”.
The regulator said that where it identified competence concerns in a particular sector of the legal market, through research or intelligence from relationship managers, action would also be taken.
“Being transparent that our focus is on competence and the delivery of competent legal services rather than prescriptive regulatory requirements will help increase public confidence in our regulation, the competence of solicitors and the legal system,” the SRA argued in its application.
The SRA insisted that its proposed rule changes would “increase protections for consumers” by replacing “compliance with an arbitrary regulatory requirement” with “promotion of regular reflection on the quality of practice”.
The SRA said its competence statement, launched in October last year, would “define what a competent solicitor looks like”.
From 1 April this year, solicitors will be able to adopt the new approach voluntarily, ahead of it becoming compulsory for all on 1 November 2016.
As part of its application, the SRA has asked the LSB to approve a “sunset clause”, abolishing all the existing CPD regulations on 1 November 2016 without the need for further approval from the SRA board or the LSB.