From almost a standing start around ten years ago, solicitors are now among the most regulated professionals in the UK. The amount of attention lavished upon the profession at the hands of the Legal Services Board is justified on grounds of public policy; it is important that consumers of legal services feel that they can trust their solicitor implicitly – and that they have a right of redress if the solicitor gets it wrong. This can lead to solicitors from time to time feeling that their professional bodies do a lot for the public but rather less for them, as a quick perusal of the comments on virtually any regulatory article in the Law Society Gazette will reveal. Further, unregulated legal services such as will writers and McKenzie Friends continue to trade, causing many solicitors to query just how level the playing field is. In fact, the Legal Services Board estimates that 20-30% of turnover in the legal sector can be attributed to unregulated providers. With the news that more and more alternative businesses intend to move into fields such as conveyancing and estate administration (usually with considerably less training than a solicitor would have to undertake – and less regulation), together with the Treasury's review of competition amongst legal services providers, regulation of the profession continues to be a hot topic.
For the time being, arguably the most important bodies are the regulator, the SRA, and the representative body, the Law Society. The two bodies are currently funded by the same process and are linked in other ways thanks to the Legal Services Act 2007. However, the SRA has recently claimed that the profession will not command public confidence until it formally splits from the Law Society. Its chief executive has now confirmed that it is preparing to make a case to the government for total separation of the two organisations. The SRA believes that it is hard for the public to have confidence in a regulator that is inextricably linked to the profession's lobbying body and, interestingly, the Bar Standards Board advocates going down the same route for barristers, recommending a split from the Bar Council (who are yet to state their official position, but are expected to oppose).
If the Independent Complaint Resolution Service is to be believed, the SRA does indeed have some PR work to do as grievances about their handling of complaints rise; the ICRS says that the SRA is 'seen to prefer' the word of solicitors in handling complaints against them (although it is hard to see quite how this can be proved, given that so much will turn on the facts of the case). Perhaps the split would allow the SRA to retain its air of independence as a regulator and dispel any allegations of bias in favour of the profession. However, the timing does not necessarily support the argument for a split, as the Legal Ombudsman reports that complaints about lawyers have actually fallen, and that professional negligence claims against solicitors have virtually halved over the last year.
In any event, the Law Society is apparently not so keen on this proposal. It claims that it plays a vital dual role in that, on the one hand it represents, promotes and supports the profession; and on the other hand it has a public interest role to support access to justice, individual rights and freedoms and uphold the rule of law. It considers that a split from the SRA would have the opposite effect to its intended purpose, and that it might harm the profession's reputation, on an international level at least. Further, it wishes to retain its hand in setting standards for the profession, and entry to it. It remains to be seen whether the Law Society could maintain that dual approach in the event of a split.
It might be the case that a split would allow the Law Society truly to become a representative body for solicitors, more akin to a trade . There are clearly members of the profession who feel that the Law Society does not currently represent its members' interests, despite receive a chunk of the practising certificate fee rumoured to be in the region of £250 per solicitor; presumably those solicitors would welcome the SRA's proposal. Perhaps the split would allow solicitors to feel more loved by their professional bodies after all.
Whatever the views of the SRA, the Law Society or indeed any of its members, the Treasury and the MOJ have pledged to review the SRA's proposal this spring so it may become a reality in the not too distant future. Watch this space…