SRA Handbook proposals come under scrutiny
The SRA have stated that significant changes will be made to their Handbook with an aim to improve professional standards and remove unnecessary bureaucracy.
However, the proposed changes have come under scrutiny by the Law Society as well as solicitors, claiming that certain revisions could mean clients are put at greater risk.
Yesterday, the authority announced the outcome of an extensive consultation on the Handbook, stating that the first stage of changes aims to reduce its application costs and complexity. As well as making principles and codes clearer, the SRA also intend to simplify the Accounts Rules. In the announcement, they stated that these rules had been reduced to seven pages, down from 41 previously. This was with an aim to hone in on certain issues, such as protection of client money.
The changes follow a consultation with both members of the public and solicitors. Having received over 400 responses, the SRA reported that the simplification of the Handbook received a great deal of general support, as did the proposal to reduce bureaucracy. However, it also found that responses differed in regard to more detailed suggestions.
Another key difference to the revised Handbook will be separate Codes of Conduct for both solicitors and for firms. Their intention is to improve the clarity regarding solicitor responsibility as well as personal obligations, regardless of whether they work within or outside of a Legal Service Act firm.
Despite the codes being separated, the combined length still reduces the length by half.
The SRA also state that they intent to improve access to the regulated services of legal professionals. By removing barriers to solicitors working freely within the sector, the authority highlighted that consumers will be able to more easily benefit from legal expertise, potentially in a more affordable way.
Commenting on the planned changes was Paul Philip. The SRA Chief Executive stated: “Clear, high professional standards are at the heart of public confidence in solicitors, law firms and a modern legal sector. Our consultation confirmed that a shorter, clearer Handbook, with a sharp focus on professional standards, is the way forward. Pages and pages of complex rules hinders rather than helps compliance. It drives costs rather than good practice and consumer protection. We want to move away from ticking boxes to putting more trust in professional judgement.
“That means we can make changes to give solicitors and firms greater flexibility. Freeing up solicitors to work where they choose is good for the profession, opening up career opportunities, and good for the public. It will help to tackle the issue that too many people and businesses simply cannot afford to access the help of a solicitor when they have a legal problem. Removing restrictions on where solicitors can work will give the public more choice, increasing access to high-quality legal services at a price they can afford.”
However, the Accounts proposals, which aim to reduce technical breaches and confusion, have been subject to criticism.
The amendments are likely to cause the definition of client liability and money to change, a factor which is particularly relevant within the conveyancing industry. Under the new rules, firms will be able to create an exemption from operating a client account if the only client money they hold relates to disbursements for expenses and fees.
The most divisive feedback was received in regard to restriction removal on where solicitors can work. Whilst consumer groups and charities were largely in favour of the proposals, the changes were heavily criticised by the Law Society, reflected in the comments of the president, Robert Bourns. Commenting on the plans, he stated: “The SRA’s role is to regulate solicitors to ensure consumers are protected – yet here it is opening the door for some solicitors to work in unregulated entities, sweeping away long-standing rules referencing conflicts of interest, proper professional indemnity insurance and access to the compensation fund (underwritten by the profession) so if something does go wrong consumers could struggle to recover any losses.”
In their announcement, the SRA stated that the impact of any chance ‘will be kept under review’. The changes are due to be implemented in autumn next year (2018).