The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has been forced to rely on outsourcing and recruit more staff after a 49% surge in referrals to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT).
Until now there has been an “ongoing drive” at the SRA to deal with matters in-house, recently released minutes of its regulation and compliance committee reveal.
The committee heard that the drive had put pressure on resources “due to the time expended in preparing cases pre-issue”.
Officials went on: “As a consequence of these pressures, more cases are currently being outsourced and staff are being recruited to cover long-term absences.
“Out of 24 legal advisers, three are, or will shortly be, on maternity leave with a further two being absent through long-term illness. The committee was informed that the SDT is aware of the increase in referrals to it and is planning its resource accordingly.”
Meanwhile, on risks facing the profession, the committee discussed a range of issues likely to emerge in 2015/16 including referral fees, vulnerable clients and how SMEs access legal services.
The “ethics relating to tax avoidance schemes” and the advice provided by the profession also featured on the list. This follows a series of cases in which SRA has fined law firms for involvement in stamp duty avoidance schemes.
The committee noted risks arising from what it described as the “ongoing public sector cuts” and the “behavioural change relating to consumers accessing legal services online” and a further potential risk “relating to the quality” of some legal services.
“The issue of quality may be informed by the research that is being conducted in specific areas such as the provision of asylum advice.
“The committee commented on the difficulty for consumers in comparing legal services and noted the SRA’s intention to provide firm data to selected comparison websites.”
In a separate development, the regulator reported that an order allowing it to simplify the regulatory regime for sole practitioners, and end the practice of annual endorsement renewals, was progressing through Parliament.
If it went through as expected, the SRA said the order would come into force on 6 April 2015 and take effect from the beginning of November.
The regulator added that more than 200 solicitors had contacted the SRA’s small firms helpline set up at the end of last year and operated by the professional ethics team, and the small firms’ web page had received over 4,000 hits.