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Law Society 'wrong' to oppose regulatory reforms

Law Society 'wrong' to oppose regulatory reforms


Former SRA policy director urges Chancery Lane to embrace independence agenda

The Law Society has been chastised as “wrong” and “not looking after solicitors” by former Solicitors Regulation Authority policy director Crispin Passmore in the wake of Chancery Lane’s response to a Legal Services Board consultation.

Passmore, now a consultant, pointed to recent changes in California, where the State Bar last year became the legal profession’s independent regulator, with the California Lawyers Association separately representing the interests of attorneys. 

Passmore called for the UK to “reform” its regulatory model “to stay ahead” in a series of tweets, saying it was “time for [the SRA] to be free”. 

Only last month LSB chair Dr Helen Phillips toldSolicitors Journal the super-regulator would be looking at leveraging the potential of the Internal Governance Rules (IGRs) to achieve its aim of securing greater autonomy for the SRA.

Details of how the LSB intends to proceed with regulatory reforms are set out in its draft business plan for 2019/20, which was open for consultation until 27 February. 

These include “ensuring independent, effective and proportionate regulation”, along with “making it easier for all consumers to access the services they need and get redress” and “increasing innovation, growth and the diversity of services and providers”.

This was met with a rebuff by the Law Society, which in its response published on 1 March, said “now is not the time to advocate further reforms of the system”. '¨

“We are still uncomfortable with the emphasis that the strategic objectives place the LSB working ‘as an agent of change’, rather than reflecting on the current needs of the profession, consumers and wider society for stability, certainty and confidence in the rule of law – ‘change for change’s sake’ is not in itself a positive value”, it continued.

Further, in the context of a disorganised Brexit, the Society said: “stability of the legal framework is key to ensuring public confidence in the rule of law, to providing certainty for the profession, and to maintaining the international competitiveness of the legal sector”.

Chancery Lane said the LSB was too narrowly focused on independent and effective regulation, failing to take account of other objectives in the Legal Services Act, in particular “the public interest, or appropriate levels of consumer protection.”

It also took issue with the LSB’s “uncritical acceptance” of the SRA’s Handbook reforms allowing solicitors to work in unregulated businesses and to work freelance.

In his previous role, Passmore keenly supported the change, saying the new rules would be good for consumers but also good for solicitors. 

“If you’re an individual solicitor it increases the market for your skills and labour”, he said at the time

“Where there are people outside the profession trying to steal your lunch it allows you to go out and compete with them.”

But for Chancery Lane, the new rules “are likely to weaken consumer protections and lead to client confusion” and “place an unrealistic burden on clients to understand differences between regulatory protections arising from solicitors operating various models of practice”.

Instead, the Law Society suggests that the LSB should focus on ensuring that frontline regulators improve their performance and use research more consistently. 

It also warns that the burden of new requirements, such as transparency, “is particularly high for small firms, which are likely to have less capacity to dedicate to ongoing compliance”.

In a final call to the LSB to treat all regulators evenly, the society said the oversight regulator “has the opportunity to ensure evidence-based regulation of legal services, the absence of which we believe is currently a significant weakness.

“To put it simply, if a frontline regulator puts forward a proposal for a regulatory change without providing evidence or even projections of its likely impacts, then the LSB must ensure that the changes are not approved”.