I have just attended a fine lecture by Professor Peter Camp on the new SRA Handbook. It was a sobering experience. Some of the book’s new elements should give rise to alarm. As we already know, unqualified employees are subject to disciplinary proceedings before the SRA. None of the employees at my firm has agreed to this. We were advised by Camp to consider appropriate amendments to contracts of employment to accommodate the possibility.
My unqualified employees will not be encouraged by me to accept a contractual obligation to submit to discipline by a regulatory body of a profession to which they have not subscribed and arguably do not belong. I struggle to comprehend under what authority the SRA considers it can interfere in this way in contractual relations between employers and employees.Camp informed us that the SRA will be conducting risk ratings on every firm in the country, but will be keeping the ratings secret.
Are we not all data subjects under the Data Protection Act 1998? While there is an exemption for regulatory activity, this only exists to the extent to which the existence of the data protection provisions would be likely to prejudice the proper discharge of those functions. I fail to see how openness on the part of the SRA could be prejudicial to regulation.
This secrecy would also appear to offend the spirit, if not the letter, of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. This confers a general right of access to information held by public authorities. I accept that the SRA may not fall within the definition of ‘public authority’ under the act.
We will soon have to report each and every breach of the Solicitors Accounts Rules, however minor. This is in addition to the provision of the usual accountant’s report at the end of the practising year. Whether conscientious reporters will be unduly penalised in the SRA’s secret risk ratings may never be known.
The SRA should be at pains not to encourage the perception that it is adopting the mantle of a secret police for the legal industry. Protestations of an intention to work with regulated bodies to ensure compliance and good practice are very much less convincing while it chooses to act covertly and thus deny scrutiny of its enforcement decisions.
I use the expression ‘industry’ advisedly, for we are all now to justify a sound business strategy to the SRA, which seems to imply profit as the main motivator. This is not what I have taken as my guiding principle during 48 years in private practice.
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