Solicitors taking part in a nationwide legal aid boycott could be failing to act in clients' best interests, the Solicitors Regulation Authority warned this afternoon.
In its second warning since the start of the protest, the SRA wrote to practitioner groups to notify them their protocol for action risked compromising solicitors' professional obligations.
London Criminal Courts Solicitors' Association president Jonathan Black said the protocol, which was amended on 29 July after the regulator issued its first warning notice, would not be amended 'until further notice'.
Solicitors have been boycotting new legal aid work since 1 July – when a second 8.75% fee cut was introduced.
SRA chief executive Paul Philip (pictured) today wrote to Black to say the new protocol ‘seeks to balance on a fine line between sustaining the action you are engaged in and your professional obligations. In our view, the protocol risks failure to achieve that balance.
‘Firms may choose to provide legal aid, or they may not. That is a matter for them. The risks to clients arise in circumstances where decisions in each individual case are not made solely with regard to clients’ best interests, including access to appropriate representation, but are clouded by extraneous matters such as those to which I have drawn your attention’.
Philip said the regulator was currently considering its ‘regulatory and thematic plans’ for the next 12 months, which could include a ‘thematic review of criminal practice and that would be likely to involve visits to firms and consideration of these issues’.
The SRA would not reveal if it is considering disciplinary action against firms. An SRA spokesperson told the Gazette if the regulator believed anyone was breaching their professional obligations in any area of work, it would ’deal with that in the first instance by engaging with that firm’.
Black said the protocol was 'clear' on the issue that if a solicitor could not act, then he or she may invite the client, should they wish to find alternative representation, to look for a solicitor who is able to discharge their professional duty at the new legal aid rates.
He said: ‘We have written to the SRA and invited them to focus some time on the real concerns of the profession, namely duties of the compliance officer for legal practice and compliance officer for finance and administration post-[two-tier legal aid contracts] and [fee] cuts, and also the serious question of touting, concerns which we often make but are rarely adopted.’
Philip’s letter comes a day after the practitioner groups met Ministry of Justice officials to discuss the government’s legal aid reforms.
In his letter Philip said he wanted to make clear ‘the SRA has no view on the dispute between you, firms and government’ but the regulator was statutorily required to ‘promote and maintain adherence to the professional principles’.
‘Regulation exists to ensure that clients such as those your members are acting for are appropriately protected and not disadvantaged because they have less knowledge and power than their solicitor,’ Philip said. ‘It does not guarantee any client a lawyer. Accordingly we do not seek to interfere in your commercial decision to not act for any individual who seeks advice from you.’