In what circumstances could it ever be in a client’s best interests not to be referred to an ‘independent’ financial adviser? On its face, the SRA’s relaxation of the rules appears both dogmatic and perverse.
However, it is not as simple as that. The City’s pre-eminent consumer watchdog, the Financial Services Consumer Panel, backs the new policy. The panel points out that, under the Retail Distribution Review, ‘independent’ and ‘restricted’ advisers will be required to meet the same professional and ethical standards. We’ll see.
What ‘option 3’ will do is force solicitors to disclose enough information – including incentives such as referral fees – to enable the client to make a decision on the service best suited to their needs.
It is in this respect that serious difficulties could arise. The panel points to the danger of ‘incorrect, inadequate or insufficient’ information being provided to the client, particularly if there is an undisclosed business relationship between the solicitor and adviser. For that reason, it recommends that the SRA introduces ‘prescriptive’ requirements for recording the referral process, including documentation, verbal records and a note of reasons.
Yet we know that the SRA does not ‘do’ prescription – the very concept runs counter to ‘outcomes-focused’ regulation. Resolving this contradiction will be critical if the worst fears of SIFA and others are not to be realised.