The 2012 practising certificate renewal exercise for solicitors has gone live today with an acknowledgement from the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) that there will be “glitches”.
The 2011 renewal was beset by technical problems that spilled into this year. It will continue until Friday 14 December.
In September, the Law Society surprised the SRA  by issuing a promise that renewal would start on 1 November ahead of its own communications on the issue.
The SRA said “significant work” has taken place to make the system easier to use, both for firms and individuals. In addition, a range of support measures has been put in place to prepare and help solicitors, including opening the SRA contact centre between 10am and 2pm on Saturdays for the next six weeks.
Chief executive Antony Townsend said: “Learning from last year, we organised user engagement sessions, sought views on the wording of questions and demonstrated the revised online system to a wide range of contacts among those we regulate. We held sessions to ensure applications were more user-friendly, and provided detailed information to those responsible for competing applications in advance of today’s launch date.
“We are not complacent. There are bound to be glitches and some solicitors will – as with any IT system – experience difficulties. However, we hope that the processes we have put in place will allow [for] a more positive experience than last year.”
Meanwhile, the SRA has formally launched a consultation on introducing co-operation agreements that could mean leniency for whistleblowers. First mooted a year ago, as exclusively revealed  by this website, the principle was approved by the SRA board  in September despite the existing requirements to report serious misconduct and court disapproval of plea bargaining in criminal cases.
If the policy is adopted, the SRA would enter into co-operation agreements with possible witnesses “who might also be in some regulatory difficulties”. They would provide full disclosure and, if necessary, give evidence in a court or tribunal. Their own conduct would be dealt with as part of the agreement. It is hoped such agreements would improve the speed at which an increased number of potential investigations can be dealt with.
The draft scheme includes a raft of safeguards to mitigate against the risks it poses, including making no offer of rewards to witnesses for information, setting a clear framework for when co-operation agreements should be used, and making clear that any agreement will be contingent upon full and frank disclosure and co-operation in good faith.
David Middleton, SRA director for legal and enforcement, said: “We anticipate cases in which potential witnesses who are worried about their own position will be more likely to come forward if there is potential certainty of regulatory outcome for them and an element of leniency consistent with the public interest…
“Respondents to investigations are already aware that the early correction of problems and co-operating generally with us can significantly mitigate any failures on their part. Earlier identification of problems could reduce the impact on clients and the compensation fund or insurers, so co-operation agreements would be another step forward in encouraging disclosure and co-operation.”
The consultation  runs until 23 January 2013.