The Solicitors Regulation Authority’s (SRA) proposed new handbook to govern the regulation of the profession is “a missed opportunity to deliver fully cultural change within firms” and it could learn from the Financial Services Authority, the leading voice of legal consumers has claimed.
Responding to the SRA’s consultation on the draft handbook – which aims to deliver outcomes-focused regulation (OFR) from 6 October 2011 – the Legal Services Consumer Panel said that by adding four core professional principles to the existing six, rather than starting afresh, “the code might not deliver the hoped-for cultural shift within firms that would ensure core outcomes for clients are the dominant driver of business operations”.
The panel said the consultation gave the impression that the SRA’s primary focus is on minimising harm for the few by targeting regulatory failure, rather than stimulating competition to raise standards for the many.
The response said that while the panel supports OFR, on a high level the handbook fails to provide “a convincing account of the purpose and benefits that OFR should deliver to consumers” and on a content level does not explain in “a short and simple format, and in language that it written for them” what consumers can expect from their solicitor.
A plain language version of the handbook would send a message to solicitors about the ultimate purpose of the rules and about the need to be transparent and accessible in all their communications, the panel said. It added that the handbook, like the current code of conduct, takes solicitors, rather than “the consumer experience”, as its starting point – addressing solicitors through the use of the word “you” – which the panel said “dilutes the message that regulation is for consumer benefit”.
It also accused the SRA of lacking ambition in the standards expected of solicitors. “For example, the focus is on providing a ‘proper’ standard of service, whereas the outcome that the panel wants for consumers is for the best service possible and for solicitors to strive for continual improvement.”
The panel suggested that the SRA consider an approach akin to the Financial Services Authority’s ‘Treating Customers Fairly’ policy, “where a small number of key consumer outcomes, firmly rooted in the client experience, like at the heart of the regulatory framework”. Alternatively, it said there is a case for a consumer-facing charter setting out what a consumer can expect from their lawyer.