Three of the seven alternative business structures (ABSs) so far approved by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) have been granted waivers as part of their applications, it has emerged.
The SRA has also warned applicants who may have tight timescales for approval because of their funding that it will not guarantee to meet them.
Publication of the waivers and more detailed guidance about applying to become an ABS has come in response to what the SRA has learnt in the first six months of the process and to criticism that it lacked transparency.
Co-operative Legal Services (CLS) was granted three waivers: the first is in relation to the separate business rule and allows CLS to continue to operate its Co-operative Trust Corporation so that the trust company can act as executor, subject to conditions, for three years from the date of the ABS licence.
The second is a waiver to outcomes 1.15 (“you properly account to clients for any financial benefit you receive as a result of your instructions”) and 9.4 (“clients are informed of any financial or other interest which an introducer has in referring the client to you”) of the SRA Code of Conduct 2011 so as to allow ongoing cases being conducted by Co-operative Trust Corporation to continue on their existing terms of business for 12 months.
The final waiver permitted 19 directors of the Co-operative Group board to complete the full approval process as managers of CLS within four weeks of the licence, which was granted on 28 March.
Both Plainlaw Solicitors and Russell Jones & Walker/Slater & Gordon have a waiver that means solicitors who are managers in a corporate partner of the ABS “need not practise as solicitors through that corporate manager body”.
Russell Jones & Walker has a further waiver that exempts managers of two financial institutions invested in Slater & Gordon from needing to apply for individual approval by the SRA.
The revised guidance is clear that the six months the SRA has to make a decision on applications only begins to run from the date when it is happy the application is complete and the application fee has been paid. There are around 30 applications that have reached this stage, while a further 130 have submitted their applications but are still providing further information on request.
The guidance says: “We aim to process most applications well within the statutory standards which are set out in the Legal Services Act 2007. Where applicants are applying with their own timelines in mind, sometimes due to funding arrangements, it is important to have engaged with us early on in the process so we can advise on whether the time frames are likely to be realistic.
“Even then, we cannot guarantee to meet particular deadlines for a decision that are tighter than the statutory deadlines, although we will do what we can, as for all applicants, to make sure we are responsive and timely during the application process.”