The Law Society has today called for a single regulator of legal services and statutory protection for the ‘lawyer’ title, ahead of a government consultation on reforming the 2007 Legal Services Act.
In what amounts to a counterstrike to Solicitors Regulation Authority lobbying on the terms of a potential split with Chancery Lane, the Society also warns that the spectre of state control risks jeopardising the envied global status of England and Wales as jurisdiction of choice.
City and commercial firms could move staff and operations overseas if the SRA becomes a creature of government and the profession’s ‘unique role’ in upholding the rule of law is compromised, the Society believes.
In an article for today’s Gazette titled ‘The end of our profession?’, chief executive Catherine Dixon says: ‘Freedom from government intervention is an essential cornerstone of our justice system and underpins the rule of law.
‘Any suggestion that government is able to fetter our independence will seriously jeopardise our global standing and threaten the huge contribution that solicitors make to our economy.’
Though the SRA is operationally independent and its board has a lay majority, the regulator remains part of the Law Society group. The representative and regulatory arms are jointly funded through the practising certificate fee. However, the SRA is pushing strongly for a full divorce on terms that could turn it into a state agency accountable to the lord chancellor.
The Society stresses today that it welcomes the review and supports independent regulation. But in order to protect the public and ensure fair competition, it argues, this must mean ‘holistic’ regulation of all providers of legal services by a single regulator.
At present, Dixon points out, ‘people who are the most qualified and trained [solicitors and barristers] are the most regulated, and people who may not have any legal qualifications or training are the least regulated’. In tandem with this change the title of ‘lawyer’ should be defined and protected, the Society believes, to ensure that only legal professionals – solicitors and barristers – can use it.
In calling for one regulator to replace the current 11 (including the Legal Services Board), Chancery Lane argues that the SRA has assumed powers that were never envisaged in the Clementi report which gave rise to the act. These include powers to set entry standards and professional standards, and to award the title of ‘solicitor’.
All of these powers should be returned to Chancery Lane and the profession, the Society argues.
Dixon adds: ‘We are not aware of any mature jurisdiction in the world where the legal profession is regulated by, and professional title is granted by, either the state or a state-controlled body.’
The current arrangement also runs counter to what happens in other professions such as chartered accountancy, where the professional body (ICAEW) awards the title and sets entry standards, the Society adds.