There needs to be a fundamental review of the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) model of regulation, its new chief executive has told this website in his first interview since joining the organisation six weeks ago.
Paul Philip also promised a much greater focus on “customer care” for both the public and solicitor users of the organisation.
Speaking yesterday, Mr Philip said: “We need to fundamentally review the model of regulation. It’s too early for me to say in what way, but we need to think, are we being proportionate, is it right to be risk based? I would argue yes, but what does that mean in practice?
“I think we need an internal discussion about what we’ve been doing and whether it is the right way of doing it. Some of it will be yes, some of it we’ll modify.”
There is as yet no detail on how and when this review will be conducted, however, while Mr Philip is speaking to staff and stakeholders as he formulates a clear way forward.
He made it clear that he supported the fundamental tenets of the current regulatory regime, such as being outcomes focused and risk based. “Do I believe in having a rule book that’s as thick as a telephone directory? No, I don’t. Do I think we need to do more in terms of making the handbook more outcomes focused? Yes, I do.”
But equally he indicated that the SRA needs to reflect on how it brings these approaches to life. For example, “what does public interest mean? Are we achieving all the objectives in the Legal Services Act”?
This would also encompass the ongoing criticism that the authorisation regime for alternative business structures is stifling innovation. Saying the SRA can sometimes be “risk adverse”, he added: “We need to look at how we’re doing entity authorisation and make sure we’re doing it proportionately. – are we genuinely stopping people being licensed? Are our concerns legitimate?”
The softly spoken Scot was called to the Bar but did not practise and instead went into management roles at the NHS, later working for the Legal Services Commission and more recently the General Medical Council, where he was deputy chief executive and chief operating officer.
He has joined the SRA with a reputation for having a greater grip of operational issues than his predecessor, Antony Townsend.
Mr Philip acknowledged that there was “some truth” in the observation that the organisation does not necessarily practise what senior managers preach – “execution needs to be tightened up”, he said, while the SRA does not always deliver the “high level of customer care” it should.
But he said he had been impressed by what he had seen of the SRA so far. “The organisation has a vibrant, energetic and enthusiastic staff group of bright people who really want to do the right thing – the meat between the sandwich, of course, is what is the right thing? That’s the issue that’s the organisation and the sector is grappling with.
“It needs to tighten up on some of its operational processes, and build on its successes – my immediate objectives are around operational efficiency and customer care. It’s got to be quicker and more professional in terms of some of the communication with the people who use it, even the people who are on the wrong end of the organisation… And we clearly need to evidence value for money.”
Mr Philip said he was not overly concerned by the levels of initial non-compliance with recent deadlines for practising certificate renewal and submitting diversity questionnaires – which he said was all part of the “journey” the SRA was on – and said they did raise questions for the SRA.
“We need to ask ourselves very carefully, are we asking people for too much information, are we putting too much of an administrative burden on the profession, and what do we do with that information when we get it? Do we use it in a way that furthers the regulation of the profession?”
Mr Philip trod carefully around the relationship between the SRA and Law Society. While “the benefits of clear independence are obvious” (the SRA board has called for structural independence from Chancery Lane), he said was committed to getting as much out of the present governance arrangements as possible.
But is he bothered that his counterpart at the Law Society, Des Hudson, has always been paid considerably more than the chief executive of the SRA, despite having fewer staff to manage? Mr Philip played the straightest of bats: “That’s a matter for the Law Society.”