SRA rejects legal press request to reopen board meetings to scrutiny

Philip: Public meetings ineffective in showing the work of the board

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has rejected a request from Legal Futures and the Law Society Gazette to return to opening its board meetings to the public and press.

Chief executive Paul Philip insisted this week that “our current approach is the right one for providing the public with ready access to useful and clear information about the work of our board”.

He described public board meetings as “an ineffective way of providing that information and insight”.

SRA board meetings were always held in public until early 2017, when they went behind closed doors on the basis that no members of the public ever attended.

Mr Philip noted also that “other significant organisations in the legal sector, and more widely, had decided that holding meetings in public was not a helpful approach”. The Bar Standards Board, however, has maintained open meetings.

The joint letter from Legal Futures and the Gazette observed how SRA chair Anna Bradley has “repeatedly talked about the need for the organisation, and those it regulates, to be more transparent”, but how this principle did not extend to the board’s own meetings.

We argued that the level of information and transparency coming from the SRA has deteriorated ever since.

“The decision to close meetings was made alongside a commitment to send board papers in advance with an embargo for publication, and a post-meeting briefing with the chief executive, chair and directors.

“Those meetings have long since ceased, and board papers are no longer proactively sent out. Nothing has been suggested or proposed as an alternative.”

The letter was sent ahead of some key issues going to the board, such as replacing the Solicitors Indemnity Fund (SIF), possible changes to the SRA’s publication policy, operation of its new fining powers and SLAPPs regulation.

“There is a clear public interest in knowing why decisions which affect [the profession] have been taken,” we argued.

The letter said Legal Futures and the Gazette “would of course respect the convention of leaving the meeting temporarily during discussion of necessarily confidential matters”.

Back in 2017, the SRA’s reasoning did not acknowledge the role of the press in acting as proxies for the public and profession, and Mr Philip’s reply this week did not either.

“We moved away from public board meetings some time ago because we, like many organisations, were not finding that the public attended,” he wrote.

“We fully recognised the difficulties people experience in accessing such meetings, whether face to face or virtually, and the limited value it may offer them.”

He said the focus has instead been on “what better ways we could find to make our decision making more transparent for the public and, indeed, the profession”.

Mr Philip continued: “We increased openness by publishing much more information about how our board works and in respect of each meeting. This includes, for example, a detailed accountability statement, board responsibilities, a transparency statement, decision making and delegation frameworks.

“We also started producing a chair’s blog after our board meetings to give a timely read out of what was covered, and we publish the overwhelming majority of our board papers, including much fuller minutes setting out how and why decisions have been made.”

He pointed to its consultation responses, which mean that “everyone can understand what our thought processes were and be confident that we have listened very carefully to everything we have heard”.

However, these responses reflect the thinking of the SRA executive, rather than the board.

Mr Philip said papers did not go out in advance because the board was “the right place to agree” whether any of them were not suitable for publication. By contrast, its oversight regulator, the Legal Services Board, is content to publish its board papers in advance.

He blamed the pandemic and “its longer-term legacy of fewer face-to-face meetings” for not holding post-board briefing sessions – but in fact they had stopped some considerable time before Covid struck.

“The press does, of course, have ready access to us and our work and we are always open to requests from the media for comment or discussion on any particular areas.”

Legal Futures Editor Neil Rose said: “Knowing how the board works is not the same as knowing what it actually does. The SRA quickly reneged on what it promised to put in place instead of open meetings and continues to resist having its decision-making scrutinised.

“Not for the first time, the SRA seems to be almost wilfully ignoring the arguments. I agree that it has become much better at seeking the views of the profession and public in its policy development, but that is not what this is about – it’s about what goes on when the board makes decisions that profoundly affect the profession.

“This week’s bald announcement about the future of the SIF, providing no insight into the reasons, is a good example.

“There are sensible arguments for earlier discussions being confidential, but when it comes to those final decisions, it would increase confidence in the SRA – which is always in a very delicate state – if they were made transparently.

“And if the superficial chair’s blog is the standard of transparency with which the board is happy, then the problem is even worse than we thought.”

The LSB’s performance review of the SRA last year said: “We consider that the SRA provides a high degree of transparency in respect of its work, decision-making and accountability, but we encourage it to think how it might provide more…

“We will monitor how the SRA applies the lessons on how it handles communications and publicity that it has identified from its experiences with SQE, SIF and other issues in respect of current and upcoming matters.”

Legal Futures and the Gazette will now raise the issue with the LSB for consideration in this year’s performance review.

    Readers Comments

  • Ian Gillam says:

    The article by Neil Rose is extremely important. PSYROC has suddenly been qualified by reference to negligence. Rules 8.5 of the SIR2012 also applies to dishonesty because the exclusion of dishonesty in Rule 9 is itself excluded by Rule 9.13. I have spent years arguing with the SIF and SRA but they ignore me. On the above basis PSYROC and consultation and now SRA blunt decision are total misrepresentation and a farce as the above illustrates Solicitors themselves know nothing about it. Someone who is listened to by the SRA must please take this on board urgently. I will be more than happy to provide any information I can to stop this total travesty. The Rules allow arbitration by appointment the President of the Law Society (15.1) which is an inbuilt conflict of interest and my my case she has refused with no reasons thus leaving me only with court action. Neil can you help me with this or tell me who can?

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