SRA Accepts First ABS Applications
The Solicitors Regulation Authority started accepting applications for authorisation from Alternative Business Structures on 3 January – the first working day of the new year.
It was reported in the a Solicitors Journal interview with Ann Morgan, head of the ABS Team at the SRA, that within days of going live, the SRA had received 34 applications – 50 per cent more than had been expected.
The SRA is pinning a great deal on its ability to become the regulator of choice for ABSs. Currently, depending upon the type of work they plan to undertake, ABSs can also apply for recognition through the Council for Licensed Conveyancers and in the future they may have a greater choice – possibly including the Bar Standards Board, ILEX PS and the accountancy regulators.
Aside from the question of whether ABSs are a desirable addition to the legal world or not (and a poll in the Guardian would seem to indicate that almost 70% of those responded thought that they were a mistake), is the SRA, or indeed any other regulator, actually ready to take on the regulation of a very wide and disparate range of legal services providers who appear to be intent on pushing back the boundaries of what constitutes the adequate delivery of legal services. Are the regulators sufficiently attuned to the potential complexities and the possibilities for fraud, inadequate service, confusion and obfuscation that is almost inevitably going to arise?
The experiences of the past few months would suggest not.
The SRA have had more than their fair share of technology hiccups in getting MySRA up and running and the practising certificate renewal problems continue to roll on. Add to that the lack-lustre response from the profession to outcomes-focused regulation, the confusion that is the SRA Handbook, the lack of certainty and clarity that the profession as a whole is experiencing as to what does and does not constitute compliance and the continuing wrangling that is taking place between the Law Society and the SRA as to internal governance arrangements and it can be seen that the there will be many who will doubt the SRA’s ability to manage such a complex process.
Whilst the initial Stage 1 application process which the SRA have put in place for obtaining approval is admirably simple, nevertheless the process as a whole lacks transparency and the fee structure is complex to say the least. Perhaps that is a good thing as it will dissuade all but the most keen of entrepreneurs to apply.
The worrying times, however, will come in the future, when the SRA have regulate what could be a complex organisation with many unregulated parts to it. How successful will they be in getting to the bottom of who does what and how it is undertaken through the regulated and unregulated parts of the ABS.
Only time will tell. I sincerely hope for the reputation of the profession and the protection of the public that they get things right. I suspect that the public will, as ever, judge the legal profession on the basis of its weakest (and highest paid) members and they may be slow to discern the difference between an ABS and a traditional solicitors firm.
The new ways in which law can be practised in the years to come are undoubtedly exciting and present everyone with the opportunity to deliver legal services in new and innovative ways. Let us hope that those opportunities do not get hijacked by those who may not hold the good of the public in such high esteem and that, if they are, that the SRA is able to be vigilant and effective in its response.