The Solicitors Regulation Authority’s proposed reforms to the SRA handbook and accounts rules risk ‘weakening client protection’ and ‘damaging the reputation of the solicitor profession both at home and abroad’, the Law Society has warned.
The Society has urged solicitors to give feedback on the changes, and has released guidance, case studies and a template submission to help solicitors.
An SRA consultation on new separate codes of conduct for solicitors and firms, which will give more freedom for solicitors to deliver legal services outside regulated firms, and a separate consultation aimed at simplifying the accounts rules will both close on 21 September.
‘The changes proposed by the SRA have huge implications for the solicitor profession and for clients. It is vital the profession has its say on these proposals,’ said Law Society chief executive Catherine Dixon.
‘Our template is designed to make that process easier, and maximise the number of solicitors contributing to this important consultation,’ she added.
‘We know solicitors from all over the country are gravely concerned about the SRA proposals as they fear that the reputation and standing of solicitors will be tarnished if these changes go ahead, resulting in two tiers of solicitors and vital client protections lost depending on where the solicitor is working.
‘Each solicitor will have their own experiences and draw their own conclusions on these proposals. A comprehensive response from the profession can only help improve the final decision.’
Designed to be easily tailored to reflect individual views, the template provides solicitors with a framework to make their views on the SRA’s proposed changes known. The Society is also running a survey of solicitors, roundtable discussions, and roadshows to inform its own full and evidence-based response to the consultation.
Dixon said the most effective driver of quality, innovative and sustainable legal services is the market itself.
She said: ‘The legal services market is continuously evolving to meet the needs of clients ever more effectively.
‘It is disappointing that nearly a decade on from the Legal Services Act, when the SRA became operationally independent, it is still critiquing the regulatory framework set out by parliament and overseen by the Legal Services Board.
‘Reforms currently proposed by the SRA on changing the SRA handbook and accounts rules, far from strengthening the market, risk weakening client protection and damaging the reputation of the solicitor profession both at home and abroad.’
Dixon continued: ‘The solicitors’ regulatory and professional bodies are operationally independent and there is no call from the professions or consumers to change this.
‘The Law Society undertakes the vital role of representing, promoting and supporting the solicitor profession, with additional responsibilities to protect the public interest, support access to justice, individual rights and freedoms, and to uphold the rule of law.
‘This role is considered to be so important that it is enshrined in legislation.
‘The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), in its drive to safeguard a well-functioning legal services market, is not planning to recommend a formal market investigation into the legal sector, nor does it in its interim report recommend regulatory reform, as the CMA shares our concern about the “risks with a wholesale change to a regulatory framework”.’
Stressing the importance of the legal sector to the economy, Dixon added: ‘Stability and certainty of regulation is vital to the healthy and continuous functioning of the legal services markets. The legal sector contributes £25.7bn to the UK economy, including £3.6bn in exports.
‘During a period of unprecedented change for Britain, it is vital that we maintain confidence in all our markets and especially the legal market given its significance to the economy and jobs.
‘As in any complex ecosystem, the balance can be easily disrupted. Where possible, solutions driven by the market are preferable to those imposed by regulation that may have unintended adverse consequences.
‘Well-functioning legal markets are in the best interests of clients and promote a strong and vibrant legal sector – they also underpin fair competition and access to legal services.
‘Any structural changes should only be imposed if market solutions have been exhausted, and the costs and benefits of proposals on consumers and the profession must be fully and transparently assessed.’
On the issue of pricing information, the Law Society chief executive added: ‘We support the objective of providing ever more useful information for clients on price and quality of legal services.
‘However, we would stress that such information does have to be helpful in enabling clients to make informed choices about the services they buy.
‘Legal services can vary widely, and can often be complex. Providing information such as average price will not enable clients to make meaningful choices.
‘We are therefore working together with the profession to support best practice and we will continue to support innovation that will help clients make informed choices about the legal services they buy, and also support a strong and vibrant legal profession.’
The SRA consultations can be found here. The regulator has said its reforms will make a significant contribution to helping with access to justice, and will assist people to access quality services from a solicitor.