ABS trailblazers revealed

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The Solicitors Regulation Authority today announced the identities of the first three alternative business structures.

The Co-operative Legal Services, John Welch & Stammers and Lawbridge Solicitors are the first to have their applications approved. They can now provide reserved legal activities while owned and managed by non-lawyers, under the terms of the Legal Services Act.

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The SRA has spent almost three months processing more than 180 applications from a range of businesses.

Co-op Legal Services, set up in 2006, employs 400 staff and has plans to add a further 150 this year. ABS status will allow it to diversify into family law later this year, to complement services in personal injury claims, will writing, probate, conveyancing and employment law.

Operating in Witney, Oxfordshire, since 1932, John Welch & Stammers has seven fee earners and 11 support staff.

Practice manager Bernadette Summers will now be appointed as a non-lawyer managing partner to join two existing solicitor partners.

Lawbridge Solicitors, based in Sidcup, Kent, has one solicitor, Michael Pope, who will now be joined in the shareholding by his wife Alison, practice manager.

SRA chief executive Antony Townsend said the announcement is a culmination of two years’ work: ‘By stimulating competition and encouraging innovation, we should see consumers’ experiences enjoy a major boost.

‘Some people may be surprised that there are two high street practices with a handful of staff among the first wave of ABS organisations that we’ve authorised. But we’ve always said that ABS offers options for all firms.’

Justice minister Jonathan Djanogly said customers will find legal services ‘more accessible’ and the service ‘more competitive and efficient’.

Djanogly added: 'Our UK legal services are unrivalled around the world and these changes will allow them to reach new heights, as solicitors’ firms develop new markets, seek external investment and join up with other businesses to offer different products to consumers and provide opportunities for growth.'

The Law Society has congratulated all three practices on being the first to receive the ABS licence and said the trio all reflect the opportunities that non-lawyer ownership can offer.

John Wotton, president of the Law Society, said: 'The Co-operative Group is a well-known brand on the high street, with a substantial profile and a strong reputation for ethical business.

'I’d like to welcome Co-operative Legal Services into the Law Society fold. Lawbridge Solicitors and John Welch & Stammers are existing law firms who have taken an innovative step in adopting new ownership structures.’

He added that the latest development would introduce new ways of working and increase choice for consumers and corporate clients.

David Edmonds, chair of the Legal Services Board, stressed that while regulation has a part to play in the new era, it must not restrict growth.

'Breaking down barriers to entry and freeing the ways in which firm can operate is key. But the change and innovation has to be provider-led. We will be working to make sure that regulation does not create inappropriate barriers and targets risk. Supervision must be proportionate.’

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