Nearly half of criminal law solicitors-advocates lack proper learning and development plans, research by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has indicated.
The SRA said a significant minority (13%) of advocates failed to provide evidence that they were keeping knowledge and skills up to date.
The regulator warned last month that it would be stepping up efforts to ensure compliance with continuing competence obligations.
The separate review specifically of criminal law advocates saw the SRA contact a random sample of 123 law firms, from which it reviewed 158 training records of solicitors.
A large majority (87%) showed that they had completed necessary learning and development.
The remaining training records “did not provide us with sufficient assurances that steps were taken to keep knowledge and skills up to date, as required by our code of conduct, for competent magistrates and higher court practice”.
Although it is not a regulatory requirement for a solicitor to maintain a training record, the SRA said most did. “It helps record and reflect on their learning and development and provides evidence that they are maintaining their competence by keeping their knowledge and skills up to date.”
As a result, the SRA said it would seek further evidence that those “who did not provide us with assurances that they are keeping their knowledge and skills up to date and maintaining their competence are doing so”.
It went on: “We will contact each of these solicitors and their firms to assess the policies and processes in place to meet our requirements. We will also look at wider information, for example, reports to us or patterns of complaints or claims”.
There would be “follow-up action” for the five solicitors who did not respond to the SRA’s request for evidence of learning and development.
“We will require evidence as to how they are doing this. A failure to respond to will result in enforcement action.”
The SRA said the most common forms of learning were accessing online materials, webinars and podcasts, reviewing case law and legal articles, and training provided by the firm “which did not always relate to advocacy or criminal practice”.
There were also file reviews, including caseload review meetings and discussions with supervisors or peers, face-to-face training and legal research for specific cases.
The SRA said only 55% of advocates “explained in their training records why they had selected the activities and how these would help them maintain their competence”. The rest “simply listed” what their learning and development was.
The SRA said a learning and development plan “is not just a list of activities” and should show how solicitors reflected on their practice, planned and completed forms of learning and development to meet their needs and evaluated effectiveness.
“A failure to demonstrate reflection raises concerns for us that not all learning and development needs are being identified and addressed.”
Solicitors could show evidence of reflection by recording how they identified their needs by using the Statement of Solicitor Competence, when they could have done better in their day-to-day work and what they needed to do to meet their professional goals.
Other methods were obtaining formal or informal feedback from supervisors and peers, and maintaining awareness of changes in criminal law, policy and practice, for example by subscribing to newsletters.
The most commonly identified training needs included maintaining up-to-date knowledge of legislation and case law, sentencing guidelines, police station procedures and regulatory requirements, improving the skills needed to deal with vulnerable clients and researching new areas of law.
Maintaining up-to-date knowledge of the legal aid system was a particular need identified by solicitors practising in the magistrates’ courts, while those with higher rights of audience highlighted improving advocacy skills for more complex cases and instructing expert witnesses.