Finers partner slams SRA’s new rules on defending solicitors

Finers Stephens Innocent (FSI) partner Ian Ryan has quit his role on the Solicitors Regulatory Authority (SRA) panel in protest at new rules that he claims restrict his practice.

Ian Ryan
Ian Ryan

Ryan, a partner and head of business crime and professional discipline at FSI, refused to agree to new terms in his contract that would have stopped him defending solicitors appearing at tribunals.

Under the new terms the SRA requires its prosecutors to agree not to defend accused solicitors.

Ryan and FSI have now ended their 15-year association with the regulator.

Ryan said he had “grave concerns” about the SRA limiting access to the best practitioners in a niche area of law.

He said: “I don’t think it’s fair to members of the profession to be denied access to a number of advocates when they’re facing the full weight of the SRA.

“It’s a matter of great regret that I’ve had to leave, but I feel very strongly about this. Anyone who prosecutes for the SRA should be independent and the concern is if you take that away it makes prosecutors less able to exercise judgement.”

Historically, solicitors on the tribunal panel for the SRA have been able to defend clients if instructed as well as prosecute for the SRA.

Ryan was the only one of approximately 18 lawyers from around 15 firms to step down after the changes were imposed this month.

The restrictions do not apply for counsel.

According to the SRA the new rules have been put in place to prevent conflicts of interest, but Ryan believes that the disciplinary watchdog is simply increasing its chances of winning cases.

Jennifer Johnson, SRA head of legal and enforcement, said: “Just as law firms need to identify risks and amend policies accordingly ahead of time, so the SRA needs to regularly review its practices and the terms of its commercial relationships. We’ve identified there’s a risk with our panel of solicitors conducting disciplinary prosecutions that confidential information could be disclosed to them that could place them in a position of conflict if they subsequently accept instructions to act for a respondent.

“We’re looking to appoint a new panel in January 2013 and will be starting a tender process later this year. For the reason given above, when we go out to tender, bidding firms will be told that in looking to secure a position on our panel, they’ll have to agree that they’ll not during the period of the contract accept any new instructions to undertake work for firms or individuals facing regulatory investigations or SDT prosecutions. The tendering process will be open to all and there’s no guarantee the firms on the current panel will secure a position on the next one, or indeed that they’ll all apply for such a position.

“That in itself undermines any claim that such a condition ensures the SRA ‘keeps all the best firms for itself’. However, it also needs to be said that there are many firms in England and Wales that are highly competent in dealing with prosecutions and regulatory investigations who are available to be instructed by respondents. It would be surprising to suggest that only firms on the current SRA panel are up to the job of representing respondents properly and ensuring they get a fair hearing.”