A future of individual lawyers being as easy to flag down for the public as a cab has taken a step forward with the UK’s main law watchdog this week issuing plans to make it easier for solicitors to practise on their own.
Proposals this week from the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) would make it easier for solicitors to provide reserved legal services including litigation without being employed by a law firm or registered as sole practitioners.
Under the proposals issued on 27 September as part of the SRA’s current bid to modernise the solicitors’ code of conduct, such lawyers would not be able to hold client money or employ staff, but would be able to provide reserved legal activities to the public.
Such reforms – dubbed the ‘Uberisation of law’ in some circles – would in theory provide a huge boost to lawyers working flexibly and make it easier for members of the public to source individual lawyers online.
The SRA said that current rules around being ‘qualified to supervise’ prevent solicitors establishing their own firms once they have qualified without providing any guarantee of competence. Freelance lawyers working for companies has already boomed in recent years thanks to businesses like Lawyers On Demand and Axiom that act as middle men between corporate clients and the solicitors on their books.
The plans also include new obligations for law firms to publish prices on their websites for services, including conveyancing, wills or personal injury, in what the regulator argues will spur competition in the ultra-fragmented retail legal market.
SRA chief executive Paul Philip commented: ‘Too often people with legal problems really struggle to find basic information. We want to make it easier for them to find the right service at the right price. We have spoken to thousands of people and professionals to help us develop these plans. We have heard that price is important, but so is information about service and quality.’
The SRA has also put forward a transitional agreement for the introduction of the new Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE): while all trainees starting from September 2020 will have to take the new exam, anyone who started the qualification process before then will be given until 2031 to qualify under current rules.
The consultation on the proposals will run until 20 December. Reforms are expected to be implemented no earlier than autumn 2018.
Moves to liberalise the retail legal services market will prove controversial despite a wealth of evidence indicating that high prices leave many legal needs unmet. The Law Society was predictably quick to criticise the SRA’s agenda, citing a failure to ‘think through the implications for consumer protection nor has it proposed adequate safeguards’.
But with the decade-old Legal Services Act having done little to improve access to justice, reformers in the industry look set to keep prodding a reluctant profession onwards.