A deputy compliance officer can be a valuable asset in the drive to toe the line on SRA requirements
Although not a role recognised by the SRA, many firms have appointed a deputy to support the compliance officer for legal practice (Colp).
Our deputy assists the Colp with all aspects of compliance in our small firm, including maintenance of systems, training and communication of compliance issues. Larger firms might appoint a deputy with a similar role in each office or jurisdiction.
As well as being an informed individual with whom the Colp can discuss compliance issues, the deputy relieves some of the burden on the Colp’s time and may have more detailed knowledge of arrangements in his or her areas of responsibility.
However, the Colp and managers remain responsible for ensuring compliance with the SRA’s handbook. The deputy’s role therefore must include responsibility for keeping the Colp informed. Daily communication is essential, in addition to more formal meetings to monitor registers and compliance data.
The deputy, like the Colp and compliance officer for finance and administration (Cofa), needs access to all the internal information and support required to enable him or her to fulfil the role, and this should be reflected in the firm’s staff handbook and constitutional documents. The deputy’s additional responsibilities may need to be reflected in the job specification or employment agreement, annual appraisal objectives and possibly even in a reduction of billing targets. Like the Colp, the firm may feel that the deputy needs to be exonerated from liability, so far as the law allows, for innocent mistakes, and benefit from directors and officers’ insurance cover.
A deputy provides continuity when the Colp is unavailable because of the pressures of a busy diary (our Colp is a full-time fee-earner with other management and supervision responsibilities) or during holidays. Avoiding simultaneous absences has become essential.
The deputy would seem to be the natural choice to assume the Colp role if the Colp steps down or in the case of unplanned absences, such as long-term illness. In either case, the SRA needs to be notified and the replacement approved.
However, the deputy’s appointment as replacement Colp should not be automatic. In most firms, the deputy will be less senior and may not have access to all of the firm’s systems and information. Our deputy is not a partner, so would need to be invited to attend partner meetings and given access to the management accounts before being able to accept the Colp role. The deputy will need the authority to guide the firm’s managers on any compliance action required, especially if the Colp’s absence was unplanned.
It may, however, be arguable that a new broom is better placed to challenge current practice and to scrutinise and evaluate the former Colp’s approach, whether recruited externally or from the existing partners. The deputy would provide valuable support to a newcomer and lessen the impact of the transition.
Although a firm’s managers and Colp cannot escape their responsibilities, a deputy Colp can be a valuable asset to a firm.
Richard Turnor and Corinne Staves are Colp and deputy Colp at Maurice Turnor Gardner, respectively.