Plant: board had no choice but to approve rule change

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has been forced “under duress” to approve a rule change under which solicitors will have to inform existing clients of their right to complain to the Legal Ombudsman, despite efforts to persuade the Legal Services Board (LSB) to change its position.

The Solicitors Code of Conduct 2007 was amended at the behest of the LSB in advance of the ombudsman starting work next month. The board had no choice but to approve the rule change because of the proximity of the ombudsman’s start date, SRA chairman Charles Plant told an SRA board meeting in London.

The LSB announced its requirements on so-called “signposting” in May (see story). Controversy at the meeting surrounded the meaning of the obligation to tell existing clients of the new complaints-handling procedure in writing “at the next appropriate opportunity”. Several board members complained that it would be onerous and in the case of “sophisticated clients”, wholly unnecessary.

The SRA was making the change “under duress”, said Samantha Barrass, director of its corporate regulation project, after the LSB had “not been receptive to any representations” on the matter.

SRA chief executive Antony Townsend defended the use of the word “appropriate” in the context of outcomes-focused regulation, which placed greater responsibility for decision-making on solicitors. He cautioned that if the matter was referred back to the LSB, solicitors could end up with something “highly restrictive which many firms would find onerous and inappropriate for their clients”.

Mr Plant said the points raised at the meeting needed to be addressed. Mr Townsend said he would draft a covering letter to solicitors giving guidance on appropriateness and proportionality in complying with the new obligation.

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