The Solicitors Regulation Authority is to make what it calls a ‘fundamental shift’ from issuing prescriptive rules in favour of setting principles for solicitors to follow.
The regulator has begun an 18-month process aimed at simplifying its approach and reducing the 600-page SRA handbook.
Firms are being promised more flexibility to run their businesses and there are also proposals to remove restrictions on where solicitors can work so they can provide legal services more widely.
Chief executive Paul Philip said: ‘I want to see an end to the long and unwieldy handbook and instead give the profession simple, clear guidance on what we require.
‘I think we can do much more to help the public find the services they need and to know what to do if things go wrong.’
The SRA has already removed almost 40 rules since May 2014 and it will consult in the new year on what further restrictions can be lifted.
The basis for change will be to regulate solicitors on the basis of the services they provide rather than the type of organisation they work in.
The discussion paper published today suggests that the public should be able to choose legal services from a solicitor working in an unregulated business.
Under the proposed model, solicitors will be subject to core, professional principles and the code of conduct and continue to offer reserved legal services to the public through an authorised organisation.
The SRA said solicitors should be able to offer non-reserved services through unauthorised organisations, while still being subject to client redress from the Legal Ombudsman.
The regulator said restrictions preventing membership organisations, charities and local authorities from providing legal advice were ‘not fit for purpose’, limiting opportunities for solicitors and restricting choice.
A tiered approach would ‘embrace the reality’ of people accessing unregulated services, without reducing or preventing choice or competition.
The SRA said this would not constitute a ‘watering down’ of the solicitor brand but should strengthen it.
‘Ultimately the “solicitor brand” will stand or fall on whether it remains relevant, and in particular the reputation for excellence is matched by actual customer experience,’ added the discussion paper.
Changes to the handbook are likely to focus on the current ‘one-size fits all’ approach.
The new version will be designed to ‘cope with the variety of modern practice, embrace new ideas for delivering legal services and make sure that the developing legal market works for the people’.
Changes are likely to come into force no sooner than spring 2017.
Law Society chief executive Catherine Dixon said: ‘The Law Society is keen to engage with the Solicitors Regulation Authority review of the handbook which sets out the rules surrounding solicitors’ conduct. The Law Society supports the need for clear, focused and proportionate regulation which enables solicitors to fairly compete and protects the public. However, great care is required with any reforms. The current handbook has evolved over a number of years responding to changes in practice. Although we welcome simplification wherever possible, it is important that this is not at the expense of fair competition and public protection.’