SRA “must look at how regulation can promote access to justice”

Chambers: SRA should have dedicated strand of work on access to justice

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) must explore how its work “can be used to enhance and promote access to justice”, such as by ensuring there are enough social welfare lawyers, the Legal Services Consumer Panel (LSCP) has said.

The LSCP said there was “compelling evidence” that the absence of social welfare law topics from the Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE) was leading to “reduced opportunities for qualification”.

Responding to the SRA’s consultation on its draft corporate strategy for 2023-2026, LSCP chair Sarah Chambers said that it supported the regulator’s priorities overall but was disappointed that access to justice issues and equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) were not “standalone objectives”.

Ms Chambers said access to justice warranted this “because of the exacerbated impact of the current cost of living crisis”, as well as increasing concerns about advice deserts.

She said there was no “commitment or strand of work” outlining how the SRA would respond to challenges noted by stakeholders about “providers exiting the market, in areas serving some of the most vulnerable consumers”, such as social welfare law.

While supporting the aims of the SQE, Ms Chambers said the LSCP was “of the strong opinion that the SRA must explore how its oversight responsibility for education and training can be used to enhance and promote access to justice”.

She went on: “There is a growing concern about the steady disappearance of lawyers qualified to provide specialist legal support to some of the most vulnerable people.

“We have learnt that in some areas of the country, there are no social welfare law providers (particularly in housing) and limited channels for new trainee lawyers to gain experience.”

While the issue “may predominantly be one of funding”, the SRA had a statutory duty to maintain and promote access to justice.

“The reality is that there are specialist areas of law experiencing a significant reduction in providers and that this has a direct impact on access to justice. At the very least, the SRA must consider whether its education and training requirements exacerbates the supply of specialist providers for the most vulnerable people.

“We have heard arguments for making social welfare law mandatory for law students, and others have argued that it ought to be much easier to choose and do models that fall within social welfare.”

Ms Chambers said there must be “an exploration of how regulation can enhance, or at least, not hinder, the supply of providers in these specialist areas”.

She said that before the SQE was introduced, the SRA’s own risk assessment “acknowledged that the omission of social welfare law topics may lead to reduced opportunities for qualification” and would have an impact on solicitors keen to work in the area.

“There is compelling evidence to suggest that this is no longer a risk but a reality that the SRA must now confront.”

Ms Chambers said that along with access to justice, EDI should feature as a stand-alone objective.

“In our view, measurable advancement needs to be made before EDI matters can justifiably be weaved into other areas.”

On technology, Ms Chambers said the LSCP supported the idea of a regulatory sandbox, where innovators can test their ideas, but the challenge lay in “ensuring consistency and avoiding duplication of effort” with other legal regulators.

“We have previously said that regulators in this space should explore the viability of pooling their resources where there is common interest.

“Indeed, we are of the strong view that collaboration with other regulators will enhance innovation and maximise the effectiveness of such initiatives, as collaboration will avoid confusion on the side of applicants.”

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