The legal regulatory system is “defective” and in time it might be right for a single regulator to replace the eight frontline regulators, the chairman of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), Charles Plant, told yesterday’s Legal Futures Conference.
Mr Plant also called for common education and training for solicitors and barristers – but not fusion of the professions – and a “proper framework” for paralegals.
Laying bare the tensions between the SRA and the Law Society, Mr Plant pointed out that the SRA is not mentioned in the “defective” Legal Services Act 2007, as the Law Society is named as the approved regulator of solicitors. As a result the society retains a “watching brief” over its regulatory arm.
Referring to the recent battle between the Law Society and the SRA over aspects of its application to become a licensing authority for alternative business structures, Mr Plant told delegates at the sold-out event in London that it had “produced… a significant divergence of view as to what the Law Society as the approved regulator may properly seek to do”. The dispute had “produced very strong feelings”.
He explained: “[The society] asserted certain positions that my board has been unable to support and at the end of the day we have successfully resisted but this is a difficult situation at times to work in. We really do going forward need to sort this out.”
He called for a rapprochement with the Society: “I’m hoping now the ABS licensing point is out of the way that we can now develop a more constructive relationship.”
Earlier in an on-stage interview with Legal Futures Editor Neil Rose, Legal Services Board (LSB) chairman David Edmonds had acknowledged “tension and friction” between the regulatory and trade union side of the profession: “I think there’s been a huge amount of wasted emotional energy that could easily have been avoided,” he said. But he added that the LSB was powerless to change the framework outlined in the Act.
Mr Plant said solicitors may be paying too much for regulation, and said “the complexities of the current regime significantly add to the expense”.
He asked: “Is it sensible to have eight regulators all regulating the same activity with an overriding regulator, the Legal Services Board, part of whose job is to ensure that the approved regulators properly behave? So we have complex internal governance rules and then we meet annually to go through it.”
There was also unnecessary duplication, such as both the SRA and LSB having consumer panels to draw on.
He continued: “Should there in the fullness of time be one regulator of the legal profession and in the process take out all the tension, expense and duplication that we have?” However, Mr Plant said there was enough change going on at the moment and this discussion would not happen for some years.
Mr Plant called for common ethical standards between regulators and said he hoped the ongoing education and training review being carried out jointly by the three main frontline regulators, the SRA, the Bar Standards Board (BSB) and ILEX Professional Standards, would recommend joint education and training between barristers and solicitors, but that this should not mean fusion.
“We have got to facilitate movement between the two branches of the profession,” he said. “We have to avoid the narrow specialism which our young people seem to have to in their early years. We have to have a proper framework for paralegals as a profession.”
The BSB’s chairwoman, Baroness Deech, agreed there should not be fusion and that the Legal Services Act was “a very unsatisfactory piece of legislation”. She added: “[David] Clementi said he would sort out the regulatory maze, instead of which we have a maze more maze-like than ever and a very expensive system.”
Baroness Deech said she was “deeply worried about thousands of young people being drawn to the law… They are flocking in and there are no jobs for them”. She also hoped the education review would provide flexibility to enable lawyers to move more easily from one branch of the profession to the other.