The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has dismissed Law Society concerns about disciplinary sanctions imposed on a law firm that paid referral fees to a domestic violence charity.
It pointed out that the actions of leading legal aid firm Duncan Lewis were clear breaches of the SRA Handbook.
In February, the firm was rebuked and fined £2,000 – the most the SRA can do without referring a case to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal – after it entered into an arrangement with the National Centre for Domestic Violence (NCDV) for the referral of clients seeking urgent legal assistance.
A regulatory settlement agreement recorded that the NCDV carried out preparatory work on the cases, such as obtaining the client’s witness statement, before referring the client to the firm. Duncan Lewis paid £170 plus VAT per referral, all of which were legally aided. The firm did not tell the clients referred that it had paid a fee.
The Law Society said last week it was aware that “a number of solicitors have concerns about the implications of this regulatory settlement agreement. Concerns have been expressed from a regulatory compliance perspective by firms who may have worked with NCDV. Others have expressed concerns about the implications for victims of domestic violence”.
The society said it was “encouraging the SRA to clarify its position as a matter of urgency”.
An SRA spokesman told Legal Futures: “We will be advising the Law Society that we want the public, particularly those who can be in vulnerable situations, to be able to easily access legal services. There is no issue with referrals from organisations like NCDV to law firms to help people defend their rights.
“However, it is clearly set out that such referrals, which benefit from public funding, cannot involve fees. And for those services where referral fees are allowed, firms must be upfront with clients that fees are being paid.”
These provisions are in outcomes 9.4 and 9.6 of the SRA Handbook.