Industry News

SRA’s Practice Standards Unit Abolished

14 September 2011

It is still not widely known that the SRA disbanded the Practice Standards Unit some weeks ago.

Historically, the unit was a source of advice and guidance to practitioners. Set up in gentler regulatory times by the Law Society. Many of the PSU advisers gradually became increasingly uncomfortable with the more robust approach taken by the SRA.

Recently the unit has been operating more like ‘Investigations Light’ carrying out bewildering ‘baseline’ visits and other low-fat investigations. The days of random monitoring visits, contrary to popular opinion, are long gone.

The chances are that if your practice had a PSU visit in the last 18 months you were not randomly selected, you were under suspicion. PSU visits have gradually become more investigatory and less pastoral. The statistics for the proportion of firms facing further investigation after a PSU visit were getting alarming – up at around 80% last time I looked.

So maybe it’s a good thing that we no longer have to fear receiving one of those large Redditch-post-marked envelopes informing us that the boys from the PSU will be arriving at our offices in a few days’ time demanding tea and biscuits and lots more beside. Keep the champagne on ice would be my advice.

Many of the individuals within the PSU were first rate, decent, former lawyers, with a deep understanding of the profession accumulated over many years of reflective engagement with practising solicitors. The good ones could tell the difference between a well-managed, ethical firm and a cowboy outfit just by the state of the staff room and the deeds store. The majority of PSU advisers did not wish to see minor technical infractions of the rules punished to the maximum extent possible. Many PSU reports were works of art in the way that they skimmed over or skirted around minor technical rule breaches. The vast majority of the PSU’s employees sought to enforce nothing more than a basic standard of decency and client care; we at LBS Legal rarely had cause to take issue with their actions. This is in sharp contradistinction to the forensic investigators. If I was announcing the disappearance of that unit I would be four fifths of the way through the champagne myself; but I’m not.

Under the new regime you will be regulated by a faceless desk-based individual somewhere in the Midlands. You will not be able to look one another in the eye or sit down and talk. Instead you will use a web-based interface known as ‘my SRA’ to communicate with one another (when it works properly anyway). There is a very remote possibility that the individual concerned has ever practised law, managed files or dealt with clients. There is quite a strong possibility that he or she will be a retired police officer, HMRC officer or forensic accountant. In the background the SRA’s computers will whir away constantly analysing and updating your firm’s risk profile. It all sound to me rather like a 21st century version of Kafka’s Committee of Affairs.

I never thought I’d say so, but the time may well come when we raise a glass to the good old days of the PSU and wonder where it all went so wrong.

One Response to “SRA’s Practice Standards Unit Abolished”

Karen Nokes, Director of Supervision, SRA says:

September 14, 2011 at 2:19 pm

“We’d like to respond to your article SRA’s Practice Standards Unit Abolished , to explain the changes the SRA is making. The closure of our Practice Standards Unit is part of our wider move to a new outcomes-focused approach, with our new Handbook launching on 6 October. We’ll still be supervising firms, just in a different way – moving from a principally ‘reactive’ ( some would say ‘box-ticking) approach, to a focus on the issues that matter. Our new risk-based supervisory approach will range from a one-to-one named relationship manager (many of whom are lawyers, and who will be out and about with firms, definitely not faceless and desk-based), to a team-based approach. We’ve piloted these approaches and the feedback from firms has been overwhelmingly positive.

We’ve held roadshows round the country and webinars to discuss and explain the changes in more detail. If you’ve missed these or want to find out more, you can view our webinars online at www.sra.org.uk/webinars/, including webinar on supervision and relationship management.”

Ian Braithwaite
Client Relationship Manager

T: 0845 056 3949
M: 0743 727 4046
E: ian.braithwaite@lbslegal.co.uk

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