The Solicitors Regulation Authority has confirmed that it will no longer allow the public to attend board meetings. The directive was communicated to the media last week and came into force today when the board met in Cardiff.
Members of the legal press will be restricted to a post-meeting briefing with the chief executive, chair and directors following each board meeting, with a written email summary of what has been discussed.
The SRA has pledged to send confidential papers in advance with an embargo for publication, although just one document was previewed this week. The SRA failed to provide an agenda for what was to be discussed or publish the chief executive’s report in advance, as was previously routine.
The public ban comes at a time when the SRA prepares to make major decisions affecting solicitors, including controversial changes to the qualifying exams and reforms of the minimum terms for professional indemnity insurance.
SRA leaders say they will better engage with the public through holding meetings in different parts of England and Wales; focus groups with the public; visits to local law schools; and seminars with solicitors and the public.
They stressed the SRA will use other opportunities, such as the annual compliance conference, to make sure members of the board, who receive £12,500 a year for their work, get to speak to a diverse range of people throughout the year.
Jane Malcolm, executive director of external affairs, said: ‘We are really happy to talk about any of the board discussions. The public board meetings are not proving effective and we need to do something else.
‘The key is that we need and want to have full engagement with the public. We are very conscious the public were not attending the public board meetings. We will be going out and making sure the board meets directly with the public so they can have conversations directly.’
The public ban means no regulator of solicitors holds open board meetings, with the Legal Services Board also choosing not to admit the public.
The Legal Services Act 2007, which created both the SRA and LSB, states that approved regulators must be ‘transparent’ and ‘accountable’.
The SRA’s stance seems at odds with the trend of recent history. The Public Bodies (Admissions to Meetings) Act 1960 established a presumption of access to board meetings, initially in local government and subsequently in the NHS and other areas of public life.
Transparency is one of the Nolan principles of ethical standards in public life adopted in 1995. It is also a principle of the Open Government Partnership, a global body of which the UK was a founder member in 2011, at the time promising to become the most transparent administration in the world.