The SRA and a changing profession: Good for pro bono?

James Sandbach, Director of Policy and External Affairs at LawWorks shares how LawWorks is engaging with the SRA to promote commitment to pro bono and access to justice as part of the profession.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) are driving forward two significant reforms to the way that the solicitors profession works – a reform of the regulatory handbook (“SRA Handbook”), and a reform of the qualification system (the proposed Solicitors Qualifying Exam or “SQE”).

A key strand of LawWorks policy work has been to engage with the SRA to promote commitment to pro bono and access to justice. In our response to the SRA’s Strategy consultation last year we argued that encouraging and facilitating pro bono work as part of corporate social responsibility should be a higher priority for the SRA, consistent with the regulatory objectives of the Legal Services Act 2007. In what follows we briefly look at whether the SRA’s key reforms will assist pro bono, and LawWorks’ contribution to the debate.

The SRA Handbook

As of April next year, the SRA will introduce a significant reform to the Handbook which establishes the practice rules, requirements and standards expected of solicitors and SRA regulated entities. Currently, the Handbook is far from being an easy document to navigate, segmented between principles, a outcomes based Code of Conduct, authorisation and practice requirements involving highly detailed regulations, client care and protection policies, accounting rules, and disciplinary and redress sections. Whilst solicitors, including those doing pro bono, are used to navigating through the regulatory minefield, issues concerning Part 1 of Framework Practice Rules (PFR) and the permissible status and vehicles through which Solicitors can practice, can be difficult to work through and resolve in a volunteering context.

One objective for the reforms is to lessen restrictions on how and where solicitors can work and make it easier for solicitors (and the organisations that they work through) to respond to the needs of the public, whilst also maintaining high professional standards and consumer protection. The SRA have consulted in two stages over the past couple of years on the reforms under their Looking to the Future Programme:

  • In the phase one consultation, LawWorks encouraged and welcomed proposals to allow solicitors to deliver non-reserved legal services to the public through alternative legal services providers, and recommended that individuals unconnected to SRA authorised entities should be able to provide pro bono services. We also argued that under the current framework the SRA had taken too restrictive an interpretation of the Legal Services Act (for example in relation in-house practitioners and pro bono.)
  • In the phase two consultation, subject to putting appropriate consumer protections in place we have welcomed and encouraged the proposals to allow solicitors to work on a “freelance” basis as individual or self-employed practitioners, able to provide both reserved and unreserved legal services to the public, including on a pro bono basis.
  • The SRA also consulted us further on changing the “reasonably equivalent” insurance requirement on Special Bodies providing reserved legal services, to one of having “adequate and appropriate” insurance.

In respect of “Special Bodies” (i.e. charities/non-profits, advice agencies, unions, universities etc.) generally, the intention had been that they would eventually be subjected to greater regulation in legal services as equivalent to Alternative Business Structures (ABS). However this no longer appears to be the direction of regulatory policy, and existing exemptions will remain in place for the foreseeable future. It is also important to note that the Handbook reforms do not change the underlying law in the Legal Services Act or other statutes.

Rearranging the structure of the Handbook will hopefully help solicitors involved in pro bono to better navigate the regulatory landscape. The big gain for pro bono though is that, taken as a package, the Handbook reforms will move beyond the current restrictive environment for pro bono to a more permissive and encouraging environment, and there will also be bespoke guidance on how the Handbook applies to pro bono and special bodies.

You can see our submissions to the SRA below

We are continuing to have ongoing discussions with the SRA on these issues.

Solicitors Qualifying Exam (SQE)

Alongside the liberalising measures of the Handbook reforms, the SRA aims to achieve consistent standards by introducing a new qualification system which will replace the existing academic (qualifying law degree or equivalent diploma) and practical (Legal Practice Course and Training Contract) components of qualifying to be a practicing solicitor.

Under the SRA’s “Training for tomorrow” proposals on assessing competence, there will be a two-stage centralised assessment procedure with a more flexible two year work experience requirement running alongside the qualification process. The SRA believes this will encourage social mobility by reducing the significant cost barriers to entry into the profession presented by the current LPC, and it intends to implement the SQE for 2020. The reforms follow on from recommendations made some years ago by the Legal Education and Training review (LETR), however the SRA’s specific proposals have been controversial – especially issues around the scope of the knowledge and substantive law components of the new training framework.

We welcome the potential of the work experience reforms to enable some qualifying work experienced to be gained in Clinics, though further detail is needed. We also see the positives of reducing cost barriers for entry into the profession. However, the question is what sort of profession as the knowledge components seems overwhelmingly geared towards business and commercial law practice, and less relevant to high street, let alone social welfare and family law practice – and, by extension, pro bono work in these sectors.

To address these issues, LawWorks held a one day Workshop in June with CLEO (the Clinical Legal Education Organisation) hosted by Nottingham Trent University Law School. Our briefing on the SQE is available on our website.

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