SRA acknowledges need to speed up investigations into solicitors

SRA HQ: More resources going into enforcement work

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is introducing tougher targets for its investigators in a bid to reduce delays in processing complaints about solicitors.

Chief executive Paul Philip acknowledged this week that more serious cases were taking too long.

Some 11,000 complaints go through the first-stage assessment and early resolution team (AERT) a year and, from July, a new key performance indicator (KPI) will be that 80% of its decisions should be reached within two months of a new complaint being received.

This will require a significant improvement – in the last year, the figure was 59%.

A paper before this month’s meeting of the SRA board said this “should be achievable once the changes we have recently made to the AERT process begin to show results”.

These include a reduction in work-in-progress levels, improved training and guidance for staff, and a “more efficient allocation process”.

The regulator also hopes to see improvements from new online material for complainants, including information on the types of issues the SRA can and cannot deal with and an improved complaint form.

The board heard that around 80% of complaints that went forward for a full investigation concluded with no further action.

“Investing time at the AERT stage can help reduce the number of cases that fall into this category and can bring forward the point at which we can make and communicate our decision.”

Some 1,800 cases last year went on to a full investigation and another new KPI will be that 70% of these should be concluded within 10 months, against the current figure of 59%.

The SRA recognised that this was “a challenging target” but that the first phase of changes from a programme of continuous improvement would be implemented from July.

“We know that there will always be some cases that are impacted by unavoidable delays due to external factors, and will be undertaking further work in the second phase to ascertain what the appropriate running rate should be.”

The paper said both KPIs were “set at an aspirational level to provide appropriate stretch for our teams”.

The SRA is currently achieving all three of its end-to-end KPIs for investigation and enforcement –these are that 93% of investigations conclude within 12 months, 95% within 18 months and 98% within 24 months.

Some 183 cases were over 24 months old in the most recent quarter, a fall from 201 in the previous three months.

Speaking to the media this week, SRA chair Anna Bradley agreed that the new KPIs were an acknowledgment that performance could be improved.

“It’s been a topic of conversation between the board and the executive for the last year or so,” she said.

“There’s a programme of work that’s been put in place to address particularly long cases. You’ll see an improvement in the figures that follows from that.

“But our intention is to see a bigger improvement across the piece. That will be driven not just be tackling the long tail but thinking about the process in the round and the ways in which that can be made more efficient and effective.”

Ms Bradley said the board was keeping a close eye on the issue. “[We are] keen to see progress made as fast as possible. Having said that, adjusting this process will take some time.”

Chief executive Paul Philip said “the operational state of our casework is nearly as good as it’s always been”, and that the increase in long-running cases came from the disruption caused by Covid.

At the same time, he said: “If you need a forensic investigation and if you need to be sent to the SDT, we’d all agree it’s taking too long. That’s where we’re focusing our continuous improvement work on and we will hopefully be adding quite a lot of resource into the business to address that.”

This is part of the reason that, as we reported on Wednesday, the SRA expects to raise practising fees this year.

Ms Bradley stressed that the picture was not too bad: “We’re hard pressed to find people who do this much better than us in terms of timelines and efficiency but that doesn’t mean we can’t do better. We’re setting hard targets but we want to do it absolutely as well as we can.”

Enforcement was the only area where the SRA did not fully satisfy the Legal Services Board in the most recent assessment of its performance.

“We consider that [the SRA] has not provided us with sufficient assurance about the quality of its handling of complaints about solicitors and how it is seeking to improve its performance in handling them,” it said.

“We also need to see further progress from the SRA in reducing its backlog of long-term cases and increasing its capacity and capability in handling them.”

The Legal Services Board is set to undertake an in-depth review of all the regulatory bodies’ disciplinary and enforcement process this year.

    Readers Comments

  • Neil Webb-Johnson says:

    The SRA investigations into solicitors are rare and initial complaints are often dismissed before even being investigated by non legally qualified SRA staff who are in any event poorly trained and who have no experience of actual legal practice. If you dare complain to the SRA about their complaint handling then you be equally dismissed with a claim that staff have followed the correct procedures those procedures consisting of acknowledging a complaint and sending a letter of dismissal of the complaint without being referred for formal investigation

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