The rate of change in the legal market makes it “increasingly difficult” for the regulatory framework laid down by the Legal Services Act to remain relevant, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has warned.
It committed to “do more to identify the current framework’s limitations and to speak out where change is needed”, as part of its corporate strategy for 2020-23, published last month.
The SRA has set out three high-level objectives for the period:
- Setting and maintaining high professional standards for solicitors and firms as the public would expect and ensuring that a commitment to excellent operational service and a positive customer experience is at the heart of all it does;
- Actively supporting the adoption of legal technology, and other innovation, that helps to meet the needs of the public, business community, regulated entities and the economy; and
- Continually building the SRA’s understanding of emerging opportunities and challenges for the users of legal services, the legal sector and its role in effectively regulating it.
The goal of improving access to justice will cut across all three of these.
The regulator received 17 formal responses to its consultation on the strategy and said it spoke to more than 150 members of the public and the profession about it too through workshops with legal entrepreneurs, small businesses and consumer representative groups, as well as surveying more than 400 solicitors and consumer representatives.
There was broad support for the SRA’s proposed objectives, but it said solicitors urged it to place a strategic priority on support for members of the profession to help them approach and manage compliance issues.
The SRA responded by saying it would ensure its strategic focus “includes opportunities to articulate our regulatory expectations so that solicitors and law firms might understand their compliance more clearly”.
It stressed too, in the face of concerns about digital exclusion, that it did not see technology as “a single solution or panacea” to help people access legal services, support access to justice and support the legal system more widely.
But equally the regulator robustly defended its ambition to actively support “the development and adoption of the responsible use of legal technology”, rather than leaving it to others.
“We think that this can help to increase access to justice, to integrate the ethical standards we expect into new ways of delivering services and to ensure proper public protections.
“It will also put us in the best position to be able call out emerging boundary issues, working with partners to address them where this is possible.”
Some of the professional representative groups that responded to the consultation were “unconvinced” by the SRA’s intentions under the third objective, and expressed concerns that it could prove a distraction.
But the SRA said: “The boundaries between professions, between sectors and between jurisdictions continue to blur and as a result the way services are delivered, who delivers them and how they are bought are all changing.
“This presents potential gaps and overlaps in protections. The rate of change makes it increasingly difficult for the regulatory framework laid down by the Legal Services Act to remain relevant.”
While it hoped to work “across boundaries, in partnership with a range of regulators [to] deliver appropriate consumer protection between us”, the SRA said this would not be fully effective if the regulatory framework “remains static as the world moves on around it”.
It continued: “We have therefore decided that we should also do more to identify the current framework’s limitations and to speak out where change is needed; this is our third objective.”
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, there appeared limited appetite at the Ministry of Justice for legislative reform, although it is keeping an eye on Professor Stephen Mayson’s independent review of legal services regulation, which is now due to report in June.
As a result of the consultation, the SRA also updated the detail around the three objectives, such as strengthening its commitment to focus on “building new stakeholder relationships”, and adding a reference to environmental sustainability.
SRA chair Anna Bradley said: “We were pleased that there was strong support for our approach, with people very positive about our focus on standards and increasing access to justice.
“When we developed our corporate strategy, we set it on a backcloth of uncertainty and change, but a pandemic was not on our list.
“The events of recent weeks have shown how uncertain the future is, and how quickly new and difficult issues can emerge.”