The outgoing chair of the SRA board remains committed to full independence for the regulator.
Charles Plant seems determined to go out with a bang. A month before he retires as chair of the Solicitors Regulation Authority board, Plant remains committed to making it fully independent.
The Legal Services Act 2007 designated the Law Society as the solicitors’ regulator while requiring its regulatory functions to be exercised independently of its representative role. But that statute was ‘deficient’, Plant told me in an interview for the Gazette. In his view, it had always been intended that the SRA should have operational independence. ‘But we do not have structural independence – because we are part of the Law Society.’
The Law Society initially took a very ambitious view of its oversight function, Plant continued. ‘We have had to fight many battles to get it to the right position.’ Even so, he regretted that some services were still shared. ‘There should be a total operational divorce… just as there is in the medical world.’
A few hours after we met, Plant spoke even more bluntly about some elements of the Law Society. ‘I hope that the diminishing band of flat-earthers at Chancery Lane will recognise that the issue is not “if” the SRA will be independent but “when”.’
So it was all the more depressing, he continued, that the Law Society had made its ‘ill-fated attempt to wind back the clock’, seeking unsuccessfully to regain powers that had been ceded to the regulator. Responding to a government consultation in September 2013, the Law Society said it should resume responsibility for education and training, for authorisation to practise and for setting standards.
I wondered if the Law Society was still seeking to take back those powers. A spokesperson told me: ‘The future of the regulatory structure should clearly be kept under review. We look forward to working with our colleagues at the SRA as they seek to develop their recently published corporate strategy so that it properly achieves the right balance between regulatory burden and consumer protection.’
From the beginning of next month, both the SRA and the Bar Standards Board will be chaired by non-lawyers. Plant’s successor is Enid Rowlands, who joined the SRA board at the beginning of last year. After training in psychology and working with disadvantaged young people, Rowlands became chair of Education and Skills Wales. She is also a member of the General Medical Council.
What does Plant think of her? ‘I am very confident that my successor will have all the relevant skills to be able to relate to the profession. Some in the profession might be sceptical. But I think a lay chair might enhance public confidence. The test will be whether a lay chair can secure the confidence of the profession.’
He didn’t sound very sure. ‘I have to say that when this was proposed by the Legal Services Board I was sceptical. But my scepticism has disappeared. I now accept the argument and I am doubly confident now that Enid has been chosen.’
And what does Rowlands think of Plant? ‘He came in with a reform agenda,’ she said at his farewell reception. ‘As a result, the way we now regulate is fundamentally different. We are more flexible and, I think, more proportionate. And our relationship with the profession is very much better.’
Plant, who was a partner at Herbert Smith for nearly 30 years, has certainly improved relations with City firms. And last week the SRA turned its attention to the small firms that make up a third of service providers – those with fewer than five managers, no more than 10 solicitors and an annual turnover of up to £200,000.
As well as promising more advice and swifter resolution of regulatory problems, the SRA is considering relaxing its rules for approving compliance officers – lawyers within a firm who act as the regulator’s eyes and ears. In October, the Gazette disclosed that a compliance officer had been sued by his former firm after raising concerns about it (the firm denies wrongdoing).
Plant confirmed that the SRA had intervened to tell the court why the free flow of information to the SRA was essential to effective regulation. Beyond that, he wouldn’t comment on a pending case.
Plant is particularly proud of the Legal Education and Training Review, which he helped establish in 2011 and which reported last year. To help students who cannot afford tuition fees, the SRA wants to reopen the solicitors’ profession to non-graduates. But those plans have run into opposition from University of Law, which instead offers a six-year part-time degree and Legal Practice Course. The former College of Law fears that allowing non-graduate entry would undermine standards and threaten the profession’s international reputation.
Plant may be retiring – but he’s certainly not shy. And Rowlands strikes me as pretty robust too. So, more fireworks ahead?