The Solicitors Regulation Authority has said it will take a ‘proportionate approach’ to enforcing rules on firms working through the Covid-19 coronavirus crisis.
In its first public statement on the emergency, the regulator said it expects solicitors and firms to continue to meet high standards expected by the public, and to do everything they can to comply with rules.
But the SRA stressed it will ‘remain pragmatic’ and take into account mitigating circumstances if complaints about solicitors are made. It will focus on serious misconduct, while 'clearly distinguishing' between people who are trying to do the right thing and those who are not.
The SRA said: ‘We expect firms to have appropriate contingency plans in place for disruption, but we recognise that these are exceptional circumstances and the coming months could present particularly challenging issues.’
The regulator has faced criticism for its silence since the prime minister first announced restrictions on people’s movement last week. The Bar Standards Board had published its own guidance on compliance within a day of Boris Johnson urging people to stay at home.
Solicitors facing compliance difficulties linked to the virus are advised to ‘clearly document’ the approach they have taken, and to contact the SRA’s professional ethics team if they are unsure about a specific scenario.
The regulator has a dedicated Q&A section on its website answering some queries about the challenges facing solicitors in the coming weeks.
On the issue of accountant’s reports, which must be submitted every six months, the SRA states it would be ‘very unlikely’ to take action if there are good reasons for missing this deadline. Again, firms should clearly document the reasons and the approach they and the accountant have taken.
Accounts rules set out that firms should promptly pay client money into the client account. If anyone is delayed in paying in cheques because of the lockdown, the SRA will expects firms to keep clients updated. Firms should document decisions made and mitigating factors will be taken into consideration in the event of a complaint.
On training rules, the SRA will be ‘as flexible as possible’ while still making sure solicitors who qualify have met the required standard.
The regulator added: ‘There are other areas where we recognise the current exceptional circumstances could have significant implications. For instance, the need for supervised assessment for the Legal Practice Course (LPC), or challenges around completing the Professional Skills Course (PSC) in time for September admission.
‘We are mindful of this, listening to feedback, talking to training providers and law firms, and exploring what options we may have in these areas.’
Meanwhile, the SRA will keep its Birmingham office open while encouraging home working. Staff interactions are being limited and all face-to-face events scheduled for the coming months are cancelled.
*The Law Society is keeping the coronavirus situation under review and monitoring the advice it receives from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Public Health England.