Thursday 6 October 2011 marks the start of a radical new approach to the way the SRA regulates solicitors and law firms.
On this day, regulation becomes more flexible and less prescriptive with the introduction of outcomes-focused regulation (OFR).
It is vital that over the next six months the legal profession gears up for the changes ahead.
The SRA is committed to helping all those we regulate to be ready.
So how is our approach to regulation changing?
Put simply, OFR concentrates on what firms must achieve for their clients, rather than enforcing prescriptive rules that, even if they are slavishly followed, may not produce results that benefit clients and uphold professional standards.
Underpinning the SRA’s new approach to regulation is the Handbook – published on 6 April – which brings together the new regulatory requirements for all solicitors, law firms and alternative business structures.
This aims to strike a balance between excessive detail that might stifle new forms of practice and innovation, and lack of clarity about regulation.
The Handbook focuses on the 10 core principles and outcomes that are needed to protect clients and the public. There are also examples of the types of behaviour that show whether a firm is achieving the desired outcomes.
For those we regulate, OFR will mean less box-ticking and a more collaborative relationship with the SRA.
Most importantly, firms will have greater freedom and flexibility to decide how to achieve the best results for their clients, taking account of their individual needs.
OFR means that we can concentrate more on the issues that matter most to clients and the results they are entitled to expect.
The new code of conduct represents the culmination of two years of intensive consultation.
This has included: two major public consultations; a comprehensive programme of roadshows; and meetings with representative bodies and other stakeholders.
We listened to the concerns of the profession and significant changes have been made along the way. I would like to thank everyone who participated in our consultations – their comments have resulted in a much-improved Handbook.
We know there have been genuine concerns in, for example, domestic conveyancing where we were told that less prescriptive rules could lead to a lack of clarity about conflict of interest issues. We have taken this on board and made changes to provide greater clarity.
The task of creating the new Handbook is now finished and our minds are focused on delivery.
The changes are huge and the SRA is working assiduously to ensure we support all parts of the profession in preparation for the roll-out of OFR in October.
And the profession must take responsibility for ensuring it is prepared.
You need to take time to consider the principles and the Code’s requirements in the context of your business, your areas of practice and the clients to whom you deliver services.
You must check that you have the appropriate systems to deliver the required outcomes and comply with the code.
The SRA will help you get ready. We published the new Handbook on 6 April – a full six months before it comes into force – to ensure the profession has time to prepare.
We have written to every individual law firm regulated by the SRA about the new approach to regulation and its requirements. A copy of the Handbook can be downloaded at the official website.
To raise awareness and understanding of the changes, we are running a series of 15 roadshows around the country in May and June.
The free two-hour events will include presentations by board members and senior management to explain the outcomes-focused approach to regulation. There will also be an opportunity to ask questions.
The roadshows are being supplemented by a series of themed online seminars (webinars) taking place throughout the summer to provide information about preparing for OFR.
For more information on the roadshows and webinars, and to book a place, visit the events page.
We have produced OFR at a glance, which explains the new regulatory approach and can be found on our website. Our ethics helpline is also on hand to offer individual support and advice to solicitors (call 0870 606 2577).
We understand that this is not just a significant change for the profession.
A major cultural change is under way at the SRA to support OFR, to harness better relationships with those we regulate and to foster constructive engagement.
We are transforming ourselves to ensure we have the right skills, systems and processes for such a different regulatory approach.
This includes retraining staff, the targeted appointment of new staff members with new skills, the replacement of old IT systems, and a management restructure to place our staff resources around the key regulatory functions of authorisation, supervision and enforcement.
OFR is a very significant step forward and there is much to be done over the next six months.
But we are on track to deliver to the timetable we set more than a year ago.
By working together to prepare for the changes, we will be able to ensure OFR really is the less onerous and more constructive regulatory approach that many of us have looked forward to for a long time.
Charles Plant is chair of the board of the Solicitors Regulation Authority