The Law Society should regain control over training, authorisation to practise and standard setting, solicitors’ professional body has urged the government.
A day after the Solicitors Regulation Authority called for complete independence from Chancery Lane, the Law Society is seeking to reabsorb a significant proportion of its Birmingham-headquartered regulator.
In the blueprint – submitted to the Ministry of Justice’s legal services review – the investigation and prosecution of offences would still be undertaken at arm’s length by a slimmed-down SRA with independent decision-making powers, but reporting directly to the society.
Regulatory arrangements would also be “flexible to take account of the realities of different types of practice – e.g. City firms, small firms, high street firms etc”.
The society would need to ensure that it has a “strong independent, lay representation which takes account of the views of relevant consumer interests”, it acknowledged.
“We do not consider that an independent regulator or regulators are an appropriate solution. There is no evidence to suggest that the professional bodies cannot take decisions in the public interest about standards and qualification.”
While there are steps that can be taken immediately to achieve some of these changes, primary legislation would be required, the society said.
“If a suitable vehicle could be found and appropriate consensus obtained, we believe that it would be possible to achieve Royal Assent by July 2014 and implementation for May 2015.”
The Law Society identified four key faults with the current regulatory regime: “responsibilities and accountabilities for regulation and oversight are unclear”, with the Legal Services Board (LSB) exercising little control or oversight of the SRA; regulation is “too detached” from the profession; it is expensive; and “the arrangements are perceived internationally to compromise the independence of the profession”.
It complained: “The Law Society, although the approved regulator, has no real levers to monitor the performance of the SRA because it is hamstrung by the provisions of the IGRs [internal governance rules set by the LSB].
“There is poor management and a lack of available financial information and complex mechanisms for gaining this information. It is easy for the SRA to ignore legitimate requests from its parent body.”
The society argued that the SRA has no incentive to use or take notice of the expertise within the profession, or to take account of the impact of its work on solicitors.
Having a “strong professional input” into qualification and professional standards would promote trust, the society said, while the cost of practice would be reduced by targeted regulation, as opposed to ‘one size fits all’ burdens as now.
Further, the role and cost of the LSB should be reduced so that it exists to monitor compliance and intervene in extreme circumstances only, and a judge appointed as chairman to regain international credibility. The Legal Services Consumer Panel would be abolished under the Law Society’s plan.
Challenging calls to go the other way and have complete independence of regulators, Chancery Lane said there would be “no real accountability”, professional involvement would be limited, and “the costs of setting up a new regulator would be substantial and there is no evidence suggesting that is required”.