The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) yesterday unveiled a seven-page code of conduct for solicitors and six-page code for firms as part of a radical shake-up of the way it oversees the profession.
The most significant change, if approved, would mean that solicitors could deliver unreserved services to the public from organisations that were not regulated by the SRA, which the regulator said would help address the problem of access to justice and “the widespread unmet legal need among the public and small businesses”.
“We anticipate that our proposals could result in better and cheaper access to qualified solicitors,” it said.
The first phase of the heavily trailed review of the SRA Handbook was put out for a 16-week consultation yesterday, and in looking to replace the current 30-page code, for the first time separates the requirements for individuals and firms.
The present code, which only came into force five years ago, has been updated 16 times since. The SRA board was told yesterday that this was because the combination of its detailed prescription and a ‘one size fits all’ approach “means that we are always one step behind the market”.
The proposed new codes would replace this with overarching principles and professional standards that would apply to all solicitors, and be supported by guidance and toolkits. They would remove the current ‘indicative behaviours’ which many have taken to be rigid requirements.
“By removing complexity and increasing flexibility in the way that our standards can be met, the revised approach is likely, in our view, to reduce the overall cost of regulatory compliance on firms and individuals in the longer term,” the SRA said.
“With freedom and flexibility comes responsibility,” it added. “This is core to the concept of being a professional… We trust solicitors and firms to use this flexibility to deliver an increasingly wide range of legal services that meet consumer demand and meet the regulatory standards that we set for them.”
Papers before the board argued that the existing regulatory framework made it “challenging for solicitors to compete with providers in the alternative legal services market”.
They said: “While most legal services can be delivered outside of regulation, solicitors – the people who are arguably best placed to deliver quality non-reserved legal services – cannot do so with any degree of ease or flexibility.”
The second phase of the review will look at the rest of the Handbook, such as the practice framework rules and authorisation rules, which runs to more than 370 pages. This will be subject to consultation later in the year, as will a revised enforcement policy to fit the new approach.
The SRA said allowing solicitors to practise unreserved legal activities from unregulated businesses would strengthen the overall solicitor ‘brand’. It explained: “With increased visibility and accessibility to competent solicitors, consumers can choose a qualified professional when that is what they want or need.
“Ultimately the solicitor brand will stand or fall on whether it remains relevant, and that brand will be strengthened if the reputation for excellence is matched by actual consumer experience.”
It predicted that the move would open up opportunities for in-house lawyers, alternative legal services providers and also regular law firms that want to hive off their unreserved work – or even move out of SRA regulation altogether if they do not do any reserved work but want to continue using the solicitor brand.
However, subject to the consultation, the SRA’s view was that clients of solicitors outside of authorised firms would not have any claim on the Compensation Fund, while such solicitors would not be required to hold professional indemnity insurance.
It also predicted that legal professional privilege was unlikely to extend to these clients, as the organisation itself would not be authorised, even if the individual providing the advice was.