The somewhat laissez-faire approach to legal competence that has been the approach of many in recent years may be about to come to a close. Not only has the Legal Services Board (LSB) indicated that it does not see the status quo as being in the public interest but also the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has indicated that it is starting to undertake thematic checks of the extent to which solicitors firms are undertaking and recording continuing competence training amongst its staff.
The SRA, at its Compliance Officers Conference in Birmingham in November, has indicated that it has already started carrying out reviews of the extent to which firms are complying with continuing education requirements and will, where firms do not take steps to put right any deficiencies highlighted, start to take a far stricter line in terms of compliance.
Meanwhile, the LSB has launched a consultation on a draft statutory statement of policy on the outcomes regulators should pursue to ensure legal professionals have the necessary and up-to-date skills, knowledge, attributes and behaviours to provide good quality legal services.
The draft statement, which follows extensive independent research and cross-sector engagement, is designed to be risk-based, outcome-focused and flexible for the nine legal regulators to apply across their regulated communities. It will ensure the public and consumers can have confidence that legal practitioners remain competent throughout their careers.
Research undertaken by the LSB has revealed a gap between public expectations of lawyers’ competence and the reality of what is actually occurring. It has highlighted that in practice, there are very few routine or formal measures to ensure ongoing competence after a lawyer qualifies.
The research indicated that as many as 95% of those surveyed were of the view that lawyers should have to demonstrate competence throughout their careers with 87% taking the view that legal services regulators should be doing more to reduce the risk of a lack of competence. It also demonstrated that the current approach within the legal sector is out of step when compared with other professions, where there is a greater focus on assessing and understanding levels of competence.
The draft statement sets out the outcomes regulators will be expected to deliver. These include:
- Setting standards of competence that regulated individuals should have, not just at the point of authorisation but throughout their careers.
- Regularly assessing and understanding the levels of competence within the profession(s) they regulate, and identify areas where competence may need to be improved.
- Making appropriate interventions to ensure standards of competence are maintained across the profession(s) they regulate.
- Taking suitable remedial action when standards of competence are not met by individual authorised persons.
So what is this likely to mean in reality? The SRA at the Compliance Officers Conference stated that it had no immediate plans for changing the ways in which continuing competence was being dealt with and that there were no immediate plans to return to a system whereby individuals had to demonstrate that they had undertaken a given amount of “approved” training – in other words no immediate return to, for example, the recording of “CPD hours”. However, unless some other means of putting in place a verifiable training system is achieved, then they may be forced back down this route. This would be regrettable in many ways since a more flexible approach to continuing competence means that a more relevant approach can be adopted.
Those interested in regulatory competence (as opposed to competence within the specific areas of law practiced) may be interested in the Infolegal training resource to be found on the InfoHub which allows firms to train all of their staff in issues relating to SRA regulation, anti-money laundering, data protection and much more besides for very little financial outlay. With over 15 compliance related courses, individual costs per course can be as low as £8 per person per course for sole practitioners and drop yet further for larger practices. For more information contact Infolegal on email@example.com .