Earlier this year Fred Jacobs, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) director of inspection and regulation, met with top lawyers to discuss how the profession’s watchdog monitors City firms.
In the background the City of London Law Society quietly called for regulation to be split according to a firm’s client base. While the SRA failed to voice its views on the issue, the Law Society announced that it would launch a review of regulations governing the profession (The Lawyer, 13 October).
News of the review prompted the SRA to blast the Law Society for interfering with its regulatory remit. The Law Society, it said, appeared to be “confusing representative and regulatory functions”.
The Law Society, in turn, blasted the SRA’s stance right back. “I’m slightly surprised at that,” retaliated Russell Wallman, director of government relations at the Law Society. “We know perfectly well which decisions are and aren’t for us.”
And the Law Society, it appears, has garnered a groundswell of support, with the chief executive of the College of Law Nigel Savage and the chairman of the City of London Law Society David McIntosh coming out in full support.
“There’s a frustration within larger firms that there isn’t any real sign of recognition from the SRA that they’re very different from domestic firms,” says McIntosh.
The Law Society sidestepped the regulator’s criticisms and pushed ahead with finding the appropriate person to lead its review. Step forward former Beachcroft senior partner and politician Lord Hunt of Wirral. It was a logical move. Hunt is a diplomat who has the ear of the Government and a reputation for giving a balanced perspective on regulation. He has also been involved with the development of the Legal Services Act (LSA) since it was first envisaged.
Hunt chaired the joint parliamentary committee that first examined the powers afforded to the Lord Chancellor under the Legal Services Bill. Under the original legislation, the Lord Chancellor would have been able to appoint members to the Legal Services Board (LSB), the overarching regulator that will come into being next year, but the profession was alarmed at the looming politicisation of the law.
“If the Government seeks to establish the Legal Services Board as an arm of government, it will come to regret it, as will the country,” Hunt said at the time.
He would go on to win support from the Law Society and the Bar Council for watering down the heavy regulation that it originally allowed for.
It was during this time that Hunt showed his ability to reach out to different sections of the profession. While he garnered support from the top of the legal hierarchy, he has also become a champion of the consumer.
Hunt is a central figure in the legal debates surrounding the personal injury sector and helped to shape the Compensation Act 2006, which brought ;claims ;management companies under regulation for the first time. His review of the Financial Ombudsmen Service (FOS) earlier this year prompted the body to change it stance on transparency and for the first time publish exactly how many complaints have been made against financial institutions.
So while the SRA and the Law Society squabble about whose remit legal regulation comes under, Hunt will look to gather as much information as possible about the current regulatory regime.
“This review must be as open as possible,” he declares. “We’re going to establish a website and we’re calling for evidence on how we deal with the challenge of change.”
Hunt has written to the Lord Chancellor Jack Straw and the Parliamentary Undersecretary of State Bridget Prentice informing them of the review. He will also call in LSB chairman David Edmonds and recently appointed chief executive Chris Kenney, who worked with Hunt on the FOS review. The views of the SRA will be required, as will those of Citizens Advice chief executive David Harker.
“I do want to listen,” promises Hunt. “With the FOS review we had a wide range of views from practitioners to consumers. Anyone with an interest in the legal profession can contribute to this debate.”
The SRA will not be obliged to take up the recommendations of the review, which is slated to be completed in nine months. Yet it may be obliged to listen if Hunt uses the full force of his contacts.
In making this appointment the Law Society has acted shrewdly. It recognises that an olive branch needs to be offered to the SRA and, by putting in place an independent chairman of the review, it has put some distance between itself and the future role of regulation.
This should go some way towards appeasing the SRA, but if it does not, the strength of the review should force the regulator to listen.