The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) new Handbook and Code of Conduct came into effect on 6th October 2011 after being agreed in June. This represents a big change in the way that law firms are regulated, moving away from a much prescribed rule-based approach towards a more flexible outcomes-focused regulation. The Handbook creates 10 Principles which underpin all the requirements of legal practices, outlining the ethical standards that are expected. The Code of Conduct (Code) shows how these Principles apply in practice.
The new Code is formed of Outcomes and Indicative behaviours. Outcomes are mandatory actions that represent what every practice is expected to achieve in order to comply with the 10 Principles. Indicative behaviours are ‘best-practice’ guides and examples of behaviours that tend to show that the outcomes have been achieved. Indicative behaviours are not mandatory.
Information related to letterheads, emails and websites is relevant to several chapters of the new SRA Code. It relates to Chapter 1, Client Care, in that its aim is for clients to be in the position to make informed decisions about the services they require and how they will be provided. It is also relevant to Chapter 9 (Fee Sharing and Referrals). However, the main Chapter of the Code relevant is Chapter 8, Publicity, as was previously covered under Rule 7 of the 2007 Code of Conduct.
Outcome 8.5 of the Code states that all letterheads, websites and e-mails state that the practice is "authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority". Companies and LLPs must also show the practice registered name and number. Partnerships or Sole Practitioners must also show the name under which it is licensed/authorised by the SRA and the number allocated to it by the SRA. This is in addition to the other legal requirements of information on letterheads and websites, such as those set out in the Companies Act 2006 for Companies.
The SRA has noted that there are practical issues surrounding this new position. Many practices will have a stock of pre-printed headed paper which is no longer compliant. It has been accepted that this stock can be used up by firms before being replaced with correctly worded paper as soon as practicable, within the next few months. However, this is not the case with email footers and websites, which are relatively easy to be changed quickly.
A visit of 50 legal practice websites between 1st December and 4th December 2011 took place. The firms were all of varying size and location, from small practices in rural locales to large international firms with city centre offices. Of these 50 legal practice websites in England and Wales only one third, 17 practices, was fully compliant with outcome 8.5 of the Code. The remaining websites were non-compliant in ways that could be split into three main issues.
The first issue which arose on websites was the incorrect wording of the statement. In many cases the note stated that the firm was ‘regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority’, which is the correct wording following the 2007 Code. This was superseded by the new Code in October 2011.
The second issue arising was that the correct wording, ‘authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority’ was used, but there was no number present. Companies or LLPs need to show their registered name and number. Partnerships and Sole Practices need to show its name and number as authorised by the SRA.
The third issue was where there was no attempt to put the statement on the website at all.
A related point to this is where websites carried the statement, but on one single page rather than as part of a footer. This could be quite difficult to find. Quite often in these cases the statement was not on the homepage but on a ‘legal terms’ page. This seems incongruous with the aim of the new approach of the Code being to make things as clear as possible for clients to be able to make an informed decision.
The outcome 8.5 of the new Code is relatively easy to implement. Where practices are compliant with the 2007 Code it involves a small modification. As a mandatory outcome it would be better for practices to make the changes as soon as practicable, in order to comply with the Principles, and therefore the ethical standards, of the Handbook.
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