City lawyers don’t know the SRA Handbook and are relying on compliance staff, finds leading academic

updated on 14 April 2016

City lawyers have “very poor” knowledge of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) Handbook, according to the findings of a leading legal academic.

Dr Steven Vaughan of Birmingham Law School has conducted a three-year study into the relationships that lawyers at large firms have with their clients. Vaughan found that solicitors are displaying a “striking lack of awareness” of professional and ethical principles, due in large part to the increasing trend of ‘insourcing’ these matters to professional compliance officers for legal practice (COLP), who are then relied on for all the firm’s compliance obligations. This has been interpreted as an unintended consequence of the SRA’s increased focus on the regulation of entire firms, rather than individual lawyers.

As Legal Futures reports, there was also a feeling among many solicitors that the SRA Handbook is just “common sense” and that lawyers are generally good people who therefore do not need to refer to the SRA’s guidance to act properly. This was described as a “wrong conclusion to come to” by Vaughan, who also pointed out that the SRA Handbook is “a matter of law”.

Vaughan said: “Some of the partners clearly saw their COLPs as oracles to whom they would turn for answers. This is, for sure, not how the role of the COLP is framed by the SRA. Having one pinpoint person seen as both responsible for compliance of a firm of thousands of lawyers, and a fount of all regulatory knowledge, may well be a burden too much to bear by many COLPs. This perhaps suggests that the balance of law firm regulation between entities and individuals has swung too far towards the entity end of the see-saw.”

Crispin Passmore, the SRA’s executive director for policy, said: “We welcome Dr Vaughan’s findings. The problems he highlights align with the reasons we kicked off our ‘Looking to the Future’ review of how we regulate last November. This includes a fundamental review of the Handbook. His research supports our emerging thinking in this area. We want to create a Handbook that is stripped of unnecessary complexity and bureaucracy. A shorter, clearer, more principle focused Handbook – that makes a clear distinction between what is required by firms and what is required by individuals – should result in solicitors becoming much more engaged. Code of conduct issues, such as acting with independence and integrity, should never just be seen as issues for COLPs or compliance teams.”