The backlash against Solicitors Regulation Authority plans to allow solicitors to practise as freelancers gained new traction this week with the intervention of a consumer watchdog.
The Legal Services Consumer Panel said the proposals could compound existing complexities in the market and create different levels of regulated solicitors.
Regulators want to allow self-employed solicitors to provide reserved legal services to the public outside of an authorised firm, effectively allowing them to operate on the same model as barristers who are attached to chambers and share back-office functions. The proposal comes with safeguards built in – solicitors would not be able to hold client money and they would need ‘adequate and appropriate’ professional indemnity insurance – but it has raised concerns across the profession.
In its response to the consultation, the LSCP chair Dr Jane Martin warns the regulator it may have got its priorities wrong. ‘We do not believe that the SRA has struck the right balance between flexibility and the need for consumer protection,’ said Martin. ‘When taken together these proposals are unlikely to assist consumers, especially vulnerable ones, in choosing services at times of distress.’
The panel said the SRA was ‘silent’ on the details of how the revised regime would work: for example it was still unclear what level of skills and experience would be required to allow solicitors to work on a freelance basis.
The SRA was urged to insist on similar levels of protection for clients self-employed solicitors as for clients of sole practitioners, as well as requirements for transparency that are made of sole solicitors regulated by the SRA.
The panel is the latest organisation to express concerns about the SRA’s plans: the Legal Ombudsman has warned that consumers will be left without redress from solicitors working outside regulated firms, while the Law Society has said the clients should not be forced to verify the regulatory arrangements of their solicitor before they instruct one.
The SRA closed its consultation on part two of its Looking to the Future programme last month, and is expected to provide a response this spring, with resulting changes no earlier than the end of this year.