There are too many solicitors in England and Wales “who are simply not good enough”, the chairman of the Solicitors Regulation Authority claimed yesterday.
Charles Plant said these solicitors let down the public and the profession. “Some are dishonest; some are incompetent. Some simply do not understand their regulatory obligations.”
In a speech to the Devon & Somerset Law Society, he cited the failure of “upwards of 500 firms” to nominate their compliance officers, despite frequent reminders, as an example, describing it as “a breathtaking disregard of regulatory obligations and shows why a COLP [compliance officer for legal practice] regime is so badly needed”.
Mr Plant continued: “What I say to these firms is that enough is enough. If you are in default on 31 December – five months after the [nomination deadline] – we will take enforcement action to revoke your licences to practise.
“There are also a significant number of cases where COLP/COFAs have been nominated about whom there are significant regulatory issues, and in some cases those issues were not disclosed to us even though explicitly required. Absent an acceptable COLP, there is no future for these firms.”
Mr Plant stressed, however, that “the vast majority of solicitors in this country are honest, utterly professional and ethical, and they are also our eyes and ears, and help us to police the bad. It is part of the SRA’s job to ensure that those decent and professional solicitors do not have their reputation tarnished by the small but significant minority”.
He argued that the SRA has made “considerable progress” through the introduction of outcomes-focused regulation – while recognising that more work is needed to embed it – and in overhauling the organisation to produce a “team possessing the competencies to regulate in the proactive manner which OFR requires”.
Mr Plant also indicated that his concerns about the regulatory framework are going on the back burner: “With the assistance of the Legal Services Board, progress has been made in resolving many of our differences with the Law Society. We recognise that this is not the time for Parliament to reconsider the deficiencies in the current regulatory structure. We will therefore continue to work with the Law Society to resolve outstanding issues.”
Concluding with the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR), he said that to improve mobility, the review needs to go further than tinkering with the current regime.
He said “one cannot defend” the premature stage at which law students are required to decide their career path – “solicitor or barrister, megafirm or high street firm” – and criticised the “narrow education” provided by legal practice courses (LPCs) specifically designed for big law firms.
“And when these young people qualify they are often pigeonholed into specialist areas. The commercial firms will say that the LPC meets their needs – but what about the fact that five years after qualification, many of their trainees will have left? Do they have transferrable skills? And surely solicitors and barristers should be trained together, to facilitate mobility.
“What strikes me about some of the responses to the LETR to date is that some contributors fail to appreciate that the legal services market is developing at a great pace. It is simply not good enough to draw up a list of changes which could beneficially be made in the context of the current state of affairs. We have to address in this exercise the legal market place of the future and explore how the role of the traditional lawyer will change.”