The new chair of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is set to dial down its strident calls for complete structural independence from the Law Society.
Speaking to Legal Futures in her first interview since taking the role at the start of the year, Anna Bradley also said the SRA was reviewing why solicitors may not want to blow the whistle on misconduct, in the wake of the recent Emily Scott case.
Ms Bradley has previous experience of the legal regulatory framework as she chaired the Council for Licensed Conveyancers (CLC) for nearly five years to March 2015.
She applied for the SRA job because “access to legal services is hugely important to both consumers and businesses of all descriptions. It’s a fundamental issue and I’m really interested in things which are at the core of our ability to operate as people and citizens”.
This was shown by some of her subsequent roles, such as setting up Healthwatch England, chairing the Rail Safety Standards Board, and chairing the Customer Challenge Board for Southern Water.
“Although law isn’t defined as an essential service, there’s a very good case for access to legal services being something that everyone ought to have,” Ms Bradley said.
A stark difference between the CLC and SRA is that the former was not connected in any way to a representative body; now she has to contend with a relationship that has been very fraught at times, to the extent that last year the Legal Services Board (LSB) give the Law Society an unprecedented public censure for having governance arrangements in place that could have interfered with the independence of the SRA.
Last month, however, the LSB closed its investigation into the Law Society’s governance arrangements after a series of reforms. But the SRA response was that it still needed complete separation from Chancery Lane, an argument it has taken every opportunity to make in recent times.
Ms Bradley said the relationship between the two has reached “a point of maturity”, arguing that it has taken time for all of the representative bodies and regulatory bodies that sprung out of them to come to terms with the requirements of the Legal Services Act 2007.
Insisting that “we’re in a new place where I think we can all get to where we want to in a reasonably short time frame”, she said she was “less concerned with the institutional structure”.
Declining repeated invitations to say whether she would continue the outspoken approach of the SRA to date in favour of complete separation, Ms Bradley said instead: “The most important thing is that we are able to make independent decisions about we do and to be confident about what we do, and everyone else to understand that…
“Institutional questions need to be second order when we think about the bigger issues.”
For her, those big issues – which will help shape the new SRA strategy from 2020, which will be drafted over the next nine months – will be the economy, including Brexit, and what lawtech means for the public, the profession and the SRA’s ability to regulate.
For she takes the job when many big issues have been dealt with by her predecessor, such as the new rulebook and Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE).
The latter, she said, “seems to me a very appropriate step to take. It’s one very important way to ensure a level of consistency by way of quality”.
As to concerns about what it will mean for the traditional law degree, Ms Bradley added: “Institutions will have a choice about how they design their courses. Some might choose to design them in a way which makes them more vocational, and some will not, and that will be a point of differentiation. That’s not for us to mandate.”
The question of bullying and whistleblowing has come to the fore through the cases of Sovani James and Emily Scott, with the latter struck off even though she blew the whistle on her firm – but too late, according to both the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal and SRA chief executive Paul Philip.
The SRA has started a review of its whistleblowing rules, and Ms Bradley said: “It’s quite clear that people can whistleblow to us and will be protected, but it seems that not everyone is confident about that, so we’ll be looking at that question.”
One major outstanding area is the SRA’s long-running plans to reform both professional indemnity insurance and the compensation fund.
Given the level of opposition to the former in particular, and their main architect, Crispin Passmore, having recent left the organisation, some wonder if these reforms are being quietly kicked into the long grass.
Ms Bradley could only say that feedback from the most recent consultation was on the agenda of her board next month, which will generate “first thoughts on what our response should be”.
Another long-running sore has been the question of transparency, after the board two years ago stopped holding meetings that were open to the public, profession and press.
Ms Bradley said transparency “is about accountability”, and that she was “used to operating in other sectors that are very transparently accountable for what they are doing”.
She acknowledged that the LSB recently raised the issue in its review of regulators’ performance, saying: “We will be having an early conversation at the board about what accountability mechanisms we want to have in place… There’s no question it will change – which bits will change, I don’t know.”
Ms Bradley said collaboration would be recurring theme of her time in the role.
The SRA needed to be “really clear about what we can do” and then be confident enough to work with others and not seek all the credit.
She had learnt that while a regulator can remove “worst practice”, it was not always possible to “ensure best practice” – they cannot mandate innovation.
“Working with other bodies and using other tools to get really good practice and innovation is really important.”
Equality and diversity was another area where the SRA “can do a certain amount to encourage law firms to do what’s appropriate in terms of people moving through the profession”, but the cultural shifts which need to happen “are probably something much more for the professional bodies and for firms”.
And the regulator would not get into any question of quotas, raised earlier this week by the founder of The First 100 Years project. They would be a matter for the professional body, she said.
Ms Bradley was clear too that the SRA would stay in its lane: “We get given a brief and we then fulfil it independently in a way that is consistent with our assessment of the situation and the evidence and tools that we have.
“If there is something that gets in our path and stops us from doing what we need to do, then we must and should raise that as an issue with policy makers.
“But policy makers make the policy about the remit of the regulators and I don’t think we should spend our time overly focused on that – we’ve got more than enough of a job to do.”