In my column a year ago, I described the year ahead as pivotal for legal services. In the last 12 months we have introduced a radically new way of regulating legal services, including publication of a new Handbook. We prepared intensively for the licensing of alternative business structures (ABSs). And at the same time we began a major programme of transformation of the SRA to become a more responsive and cost-effective regulator of legal services.
Last week marked a landmark for consumers and providers of legal services. On 3 January we started accepting licensing applications for ABSs, which will enable non-lawyers to own and manage legal services, and the provision of legal and non-legal services from a single entity. This is a milestone that we have been working towards for the last two years, and realises the ambition set out in the Legal Services Act 2007 to open up and liberalise the legal services market in the public interest.
We have put in place a robust system to ensure that only those capable of providing safe, competent and ethical legal services are licensed. Each application will be assessed on its merits against the stringent requirements we have set. The application process is rigorous and robust. Depending on the complexity of the first applications received, the SRA expects to announce the first successful applicants in the second half of next month. More complex applications will take substantially longer.
A huge programme of reform has been happening, and is continuing, at the SRA to ensure that we have the people and skills in place to license ABSs successfully and to deliver our new outcomes-focused approach to regulation for all those we regulate. This has involved changing our culture, ways of working, and underlying business systems and processes. Our overall aim is to regulate in the public interest and to be the leading regulator of legal services, while continuing to provide good value for money for all those we regulate.
Improving our use of resources, while continuing to drive up standards, has been a key priority of the SRA to provide better value for money for those we regulate. In 2012 our running costs will be £8m less than they were in 2011 - a 17% reduction overall. We have achieved this partly through a reduction in staff numbers, driven by our move away from ‘tick-box’ regulation to a regulatory approach based on assessing risk and focused on achieving the right outcomes, and partly through reductions in administrative overheads.
A new online applications system, mySRA, is now in place and will transform the way you - as a solicitor or other legal services provider - interact with us. MySRA is integral to the ambitious transformation programme we undertook two years ago and replaces our paper-based system of application forms and fees, saving you time and making engaging with us easier. We experienced significant problems in launching this system and I apologise to all those who were inconvenienced by the consequent delays, but it is now running smoothly, with over 120,000 members of the profession having activated their accounts. The system will offer round-the-clock access to your account, enable you to track the progress of your applications online, and allow you to pay for renewals online. It should offer you significant savings in terms of costs and resources.
A key part of our efficiency drive is our move to a single site in Birmingham this year. We recently announced that we are moving our Midlands offices to the landmark Cube development in the city centre, which will become our new headquarters. Some 700 SRA and support services staff from the Law Society staff currently working in Redditch and Leamington Spa will occupy 57,000 sq ft of this prestigious building. Bringing all our Midlands-based staff together under one roof will reduce our costs, and make us more effective and more efficient.
The Cube offers us a more accessible location with excellent transport links, and will help us to attract the high-quality staff needed to deliver our new regulatory regime.
As well as being a transformational year for the SRA, 2011 proved to be pivotal for the regulation of legal services in general, and ended in the culmination of a process which started in 2003 when the then constitutional affairs secretary, Lord Falconer, asked Sir David Clementi to review the regulation of legal services and recommend a framework that ‘would best promote competition, innovation and the public and consumer interest in an efficient, effective and independent legal sector’. This will be an equally demanding year both for the SRA and the profession, but I am confident that, in partnership with those we regulate, we will continue to deliver.
Charles Plant is chair of the board of the Solicitors Regulation Authority