The outgoing chairman of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has urged the “flat-earthers” at the Law Society to accept that full structural independence for the regulator from Chancery Lane is inevitable.
Charles Plant also used his speech at a reception to mark the end of his tenure next month to praise the integrity of the solicitors’ profession and warn against moves that could damage its brand.
Speaking in London, Mr Plant said that while it was now accepted that the 2007 Legal Services Act is deficient and needs amending, it was also “the start of a journey at the end of which the SRA will surely achieve not just operational independence but also structural independence”.
He continued: “I hope that the diminishing band of flat-earthers at Chancery Lane will recognise that the issue is not if the SRA will be independent, but when. The full independence for the SRA really must be achieved.
“That debate is starting again, led by the Legal Services Board. We have many friends in Chancery Lane and I hope that they will accept the inevitable and will work with us to achieve it.”
Mr Plant also spoke out against the idea of single regulator of legal services. “Please do not complicate matters with notions of there being a single regulator,” he said. “That would indeed be a retrograde and disruptive step – we erode the brand of solicitors at our peril.”
That was a brand, he said, which had been the core reason English law firms have conquered overseas markets: “The universal belief that the hallmark of an English solicitor is his or her integrity, honesty and trust… Solicitors understand that they must respect not just the letter of law and the letter of regulation; they understand that they must respect the spirit of regulation.”
He said that while “we have to address the problems of the mad, the bad and the sad”, they represent a small minority of “this great profession”.
“Core professional values are ingrained in solicitors. They understand, when perhaps other people who are regulated don’t understand, that they have to maintain the public trust.”
He returned to the theme when discussing the work of the SRA in licensing alternative business structures. “We are delivering the liberalisation of the market and we are producing consumer empowerment,” Mr Plant said. “We encourage competition but not for its own sake and not – Legal Services Board please note – if it diminishes professional values inherent in being a solicitor.”
He also highlighted his pride in delivering the training reforms that are reintroducing non-graduate entry to the profession through apprenticeship schemes and various flexible paths.
“Solicitors owe it to the next generation to see that those who wish to go down the apprenticeship route – because perhaps the bank of mum and dad isn’t able to see them through – get a good start in life,” he said.