The Solicitors’ Regulation Athority: The governor

The introduction of the Solicitors’ Regulation Authority spells a dramatic shift for legal regulation. Steering the change is chief executive Antony Townsend

Antony Townsend’s CV

Place of birth: London
1979: English Language and Literature, Oxford University
Work history:
1980: Home Office – various roles, largely concerned with criminal justice policy
1990: Director of standards and education and head of conduct, General Medical Council
2001: Chief executive, General Dental Council
2006: Chief executive, Law Society regulation board

Antony Townsend is leading a revolution. The chief executive of the Law Society’s regulation board – which from 1 January 2007 will be known as the Solicitors’ Regulation Authority (SRA) – is driving the effort to modernise the body that governs the rules and regulations for every solicitor in England and Wales.

“Possibly the most important underpinning point of the new strategy is that currently the regulatory organisation is more reactive to comment than it is proactive to information,” says Townsend. “We want to do something rather broader.”

Townsend joined the SRA in June from the General Dental Council, where he was also chief executive. He was attracted by the possibility of helping to build something new, as years of tradition at the old-style Law Society are “unpicked”.

“To make sure that the organisation functions efficiently and effectively, and to help set its priorities, seems to me to be quite an exciting challenge,” Townsend explains.

The SRA, under the leadership of Townsend and its solicitor chair Peter Williamson, has several key priorities to deal with in the immediate future. Its responsibilities encompass education and training, conduct and discipline, indemnity insurance and ethics.

In January, when the rebrand takes full effect, the board will begin work on a new code of conduct for solicitors with the aim of establishing the key principles of modern practice.

The board is also preparing to revamp its disciplinary powers to “make them more flexible”, says Townsend.

Training is also coming under the SRA’s spotlight. The board is continuing the work begun by the Law Society before regulation was split off from representation by developing further the controversial Training Framework Review.

First among the considerations is how to implement the work-based learning portfolios that could allow law students without traditional training contracts to qualify as solicitors, although Townsend adds that firms which still want to offer two-year contracts will be able to do so.

The SRA will also launch a study of university law degrees next year, examining whether the quality of the law taught is the same across the country.

However, the full functions of the SRA are still unclear. Until the implementation of the Legal Services Bill, which is currently in draft form, Townsend does not know the detail of his responsibilities. Like his counterpart on the representative side of the Law Society Desmond Hudson, Townsend is preparing to lobby the Government to make sure that the SRA’s voice is heard as the bill progresses through Parliament.

“We want clear criteria for the separation between the regulatory board and the Law Society,” says Townsend. “At the minute the word ‘separation’ appears, but it’s not clear what it means.”

The SRA will be governed by ‘umbrella regulator’ the Legal Services Board (LSB), but Townsend says that more clarity is required as to what the LSB will be able to do.

“We think that the LSB’s powers are too complex. It’s overelaborate and we think that can be scaled back a bit,” Townsend explains.

He also has concerns about the proposals to allow alternative business structures (ABSs) or multidisciplinary practices, pointing out that that the draft bill went a step further than the legal profession had been expecting after Sir David Clementi’s regulatory review.

Townsend says: “We think that the proposals on ABSs are far too elaborate and probably unworkable.”

However, the regulation board will be pitching to become a front-line regulator of ABSs should the legislation go through as it is currently drafted, enabling it to regulate law firms that have made their financial directors partners, or that have barristers who have become partners.

Townsend says another future step for the SRA will be a move to regulating organisations rather than individuals. An organisation, for example a large City law firm, would have to satisfy the board that it had an adequate system of self-regulation to qualify, but it would then benefit from light-touch regulation rather than the more cumbersome system currently in place.

Naturally the changes will have an effect on cost. But Townsend is hopeful that the profession will not end up footing the bill for more regulation, and also that he will not have to resort to staff cuts.

“Regulating the solicitors’ profession is a very expensive business,” he says. “We’ve got a lot more we want to do, but we don’t want to push the budget sky high. Our philosophy – if we can do it – is to be more efficient with what we’ve got.”

Townsend and Williamson are now embarking on a series of roadshows, with the first in Manchester tomorrow (3 October) to gauge the profession’s views on regulation and to make sure that, when the SRA really gets going in January, it is ready to do its job.