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Client Care has always been a priority of the regulator but are you fully aware of your obligations? We are four years on from the Solicitors Code of Conduct 2007 which first introduced very prescriptive rules about Client Care and we now have a new Code, the SRA Code of Conduct 2011, which continues to apply the same level of importance to Client Care. Yet, many firms are still not up to speed with Client Care and are falling short of compliance with their regulatory obligations.
Client Care has become of increasing importance over the years. This is evident from the fact that the Solicitors’ Practice Rules 1990 simply required solicitors to give clients “information about costs and other matters” and to “operate a complaints handling procedure”. In 1999 the Law Society released the Solicitors’ Costs Information and Client Care Code which was a 7 page document that focused entirely on costs information and complaints information. Then in 2007, the Solicitors Code of Conduct was introduced and it contained very prescriptive rules and guidance notes on Client Care under Rule 2, totalling 18 pages of Client Care requirements! Today the SRA Code of Conduct 2011 is in force, while the SRA insisted that this Code would give firms greater freedom to decide how to meet the needs of clients, the risk of breaching the Mandatory Principles and Outcomes is far greater. Now that the regulatory obligations are less prescriptive and in some instances appearing to be very subjective, it seems unlikely that firms will really be able to deviate from the large amount of information that had to be provided under the 2007 Code.
So what is required? Your obligations are now set out under Principle 5 of the SRA Handbook 2011 and in the Mandatory Outcomes of Chapter 1 ‘Client Care’ of the SRA Code of Conduct 2011. Principle 5 provides that ‘you must provide a proper standard of service to your clients.’ Broadly, Chapter 1 requires you to provide clients with the information they need to make informed decisions about the services they need, how these will be delivered, how much they will cost and the options available to them. Sounds simple enough? Still, firms are struggling to provide adequate details to their clients. Most firms will produce some form of Client Care Letter providing basic costs information, basic complaints information and responsibility for the matter, but this is not enough. Key areas that are missed include; agreeing instructions and appropriate levels of service, client- solicitor responsibilities, explaining the client’s rights and the firm’s rights, providing adequate break down of costs and cost estimates, adherence to the Provision of Services Regulations 2009 etc. As well as meeting regulatory obligations, you should remember that a Solicitor – Client relationship is a contractual one therefore you should be protecting yourself as much as you can contractually, confirming instructions in writing will mitigate the chance of any successful complaint or breach of contract or negligence claim later on.
Failing to provide a proper standard of Client Care will put you in breach of the Mandatory Outcomes of Chapter 1 but also in breach of SRA Principle 5, the SRA Principles define the fundamental ethical and professional standards that the SRA expect of all firms and individuals providing Legal Services. Therefore, breaches of Client Care are likely to attract big regulatory sanctions. Failure to get to grips with the new SRA Handbook can result in: regulatory investigations;
penalties, disqualifications, referral to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal; high intensity, intrusive, burdensome regulation by the SRA; Revocation of your practice’s authorisation or closure by SRA Intervention.
The problem is that many solicitors are already so busy with the legal side of their work i.e. advising clients and providing legal services that they often do not realise the importance of regulatory compliance or have not been able to take the time to learn their obligations. Unfortunately, you could be the best solicitor providing excellent legal advice and services yet if you fail in your Client Care obligations you could find yourself facing regulatory sanctions.
So what is the answer? Firms must simply take the time to read their obligations under the SRA Code of Conduct and review their Client Care documents and procedures to ensure a) that they are up-to-date and b) that they are compliant with the SRA Handbook. Time taken to develop a good set of up-to-date and compliant precedent template Client Care Letters and a good set of Terms of Business will take the headache away from fee earners and keep the regulator at bay in this respect. Firms that see this as a daunting or impossible task should seek advice from a regulatory compliance specialist, to assist in getting the firm up-to-speed with the new obligations and taking away the headache of doing so in the process. Please seehttp://www.lbslegal.co.uk/services/#regulatory-compliance-support-implementation for more details of how you could be up-date and compliant the hassle free way. Do not despair, be aware and get on top of Client Care.
Client Relationship Manager
T: 0845 056 3949
M: 0743 727 4046
The Law Society has issued a practice note about the risks to solicitors posed by this new legislation, which came into force on 30 September.
The SRA has urged all practices to check HM Treasury’s consolidated list of asset freeze targets, which lists designated persons subject to financial sanction under EU or UK legislation.
The practising certificate renewal period opened on Monday 2 October.
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