The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has said it cannot explain why the number of interventions into law firms in the first five months of 2017 was twice the figure for the same period last year.
The SRA said it had closed 20 firms from January to May, compared to 10 for the same period last year and there had been a “noticeable increase” in the size of firm.
In an update on operational performance for this month’s board meeting, the regulator said that the number of complaints about law firms was up by 9% this year and the number of new cases investigated up by 12% on the same period in 2016.
Chief executive Paul Philip told a press briefing yesterday that he “did not think we have a reason” for the increase in interventions.
He said the SRA’s caseload had become more complicated, with more cases referred to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal.
The briefing heard that the previous peak in interventions came four years ago, shortly after the financial crisis.
Mr Philip said the SRA was “keeping a watching brief” on the rise in activity and interventions. He said the regulator wanted to maintain “downward pressure” on costs.
“If we can prove to solicitors and to the world at large that we are performing effectively, and if the activity continued to increase, we would go back and ask for more money, but we’re a long, long way from doing that.
“My expectation is that we will continue to reduce the costs of the organisation.”
Meanwhile the SRA has launched its corporate strategy for the next three years, and invited the public, as well as the profession, to comment on what the regulator’s priorities should be.
Enid Rowlands, chair of the SRA, said it was important to explain to the public what the SRA can and cannot do, and to hear “other voices” outside the profession.
She said she had plenty of contact with the public and they often came up with “good ideas”.
Richard Collins, the SRA’s executive director for strategic planning and performance, said that if people had “strong views” on the information law firms should provide consumers, or the new Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE), he was happy for them to make their points.
“It’s important to engage with people on the totality of what we’re attempting to do. We’re regulating in a market which is still changing.”
Mr Collins explained that the SRA had set itself five strategic aims: Setting and applying high standards, including the introduction of SQE; making sure its regulatory requirements were proportionate and flexible, including the Handbook reform programme; increasing the availability of information to help consumers make choices, as recommended by the Competition and Markets Authority; making sure regulation works as effectively as possible in the context of Brexit and a devolved UK; and improving the effectiveness of the SRA.
Mr Collins said the final aim included IT systems at the SRA, which had been “highly problematic” for both the regulator and the Law Society. He said that in July last year the society’s ruling council had backed the development of separate systems for each organisation and the SRA was spending £34.5m on a three-year programme.
In a further development, the SRA said it would be carrying out “in-depth interviews” with judges to understand their views on the quality of solicitor-advocates and barristers, in a research project with the Bar Standards Board.
Crispin Passmore, SRA executive director for policy, said there were “longstanding” concerns about the quality of criminal advocacy and the research would help find out what judges’ perceptions really were.