SRA to review regime for checking solicitors’ competence

Chambers: Most consumers are shopping blind

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is to launch a review of its approach to solicitors’ continuing competence, it has emerged.

The move follows a call by the Legal Services Consumer Panel (LSCP) for competence checks to include an “independent review of cases or advice, such as spot checks or mystery shopping”.

Both the SRA and LSCP were responding to a call for evidence on the issue by the Legal Services Board (LSB), announced in January this year and including the possibility of formal periodic reaccreditation.

The SRA said that, five years after it launched its competence statement, it was “timely to undertake a strategic review of our approach to continuing competence during 2020/21”.

The SRA said the review would consider “whether our current approach gives sufficient assurance that solicitors are safe to practise”.

It went on: “We do not intend to change our competence statement, or our requirements for ongoing reflection and development.

“However, we will consider the evidence and data we have about continuing competence and use that to inform whether there is anything further we can and should do to enhance our approach.”

The SRA said review would consider the “three key questions” of whether there was evidence of “issues around compliance” with existing competence arrangements, whether the current approach was “effective and targeted where it needs to be”, and what could be learnt from other sectors.

The regulator warned that “unnecessarily high entry standards and continuing competence requirements risk having a negative impact on access to justice, diversity and competition”.

Giving the LSCP’s response to the call for evidence, chair Sarah Chambers said “proactive and reactive competence checks” should occur throughout a professional’s career – a position the panel has held for many years.

“Whilst these can be undertaken in a range of ways, checks should ideally involve some independent review of cases or advice, such as spot checks or mystery shopping.”

She said the LSCP’s research on quality indicators found that, where quality was concerned, most consumers were “shopping blind”, relying on “longevity in the sector or the sleekness of their website” as positive indicators of quality.

“Consumers have little choice but to rely on the checks and assessments made by regulators and employees on entry to the profession and during a legal professional’s career. Indeed, they already assume this happens.”

Ms Chambers said competence was “dynamic, needs refreshing and must respond to new demands and consumer needs”.

It would be useful to set out the “required competences for differing seniority of roles” to ensure that senior lawyers, who attracted higher fee rates, were delivering “greater competence”.

Ms Chambers argued that continuing professional development arrangements alone were not sufficient to test continuing competence, and “more rigorous mechanisms” were needed, such as periodic re-accreditation, peer review and a review of permission to practise after a fixed time, similar to healthcare practitioners.

She urged the LSB to be “bold” in its approach, “by defining what good looks like, instead of just setting a minimum standard”.

Meanwhile in its response, the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL) said the “most effective way of ensuring competence in the legal profession” was through accreditation.

“Accreditation backed by a competency framework enables legal professionals to have a clear path for career development, and allows them to remain up to date with the law, and to continually develop their skills.”

APIL, which has its own accreditation scheme, said the SRA’s competence statement was “far too broad to be effective”.

The association said personal injury and medical negligence work had become “much more specialised in recent times, and it has become more important than ever that accreditation and competency frameworks should recognise this”.

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