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The courage to liberate to innovate

Cutbacks iStock 000013353612XSmall 146x219The Solicitors Regulation Authority must press ahead with plans to lift restrictions on local government lawyers' ability to charge, writes Law Society Council member Maria Memoli.

I first raised the issue of the SRA Conduct Rules for in-house lawyers conflicting with local government statutory powers to charge for legal services in August 2011, referring to the then emerging Localism Bill and the widening of local government powers.

The SRA recognised the difficulties facing local government and the changing nature of how legal services are to be provided, and promised to review the rules relating to in-house lawyers taking on board the Government’s proposals to devolve powers more at local level. I therefore applaud the SRA’s red tape initiative.

This is very important to local government, which is one of the biggest procurers of legal services in England and Wales.

I am deeply disappointed at the Law Society’s response to the SRA’s initiative. It demonstrates a continued attitude of protectionism by the Law Society towards one section of the profession with a disregard for another. Their position appears to remain the same since August 2011.

It is unfortunate that the Law Society has chosen to focus just on one particular topic of academies, since the Localism Act now in force, runs into some 500 pages, goes way beyond that topic.

Local government is a creature of statute; lawyers within it are already highly regulated. They are regarded as a “low risk body”. Where is the evidence that local government lawyers pose a risk to the public?

I would argue there is no risk. Local government lawyers have been serving the public for many years. Many are business managers managing risk, have budget responsibilities, recruit and manage staff and maintain a legal service according to sound financial and management principles. Externally they are subject to scrutiny by councillors, taxpayers and stakeholders. Internally, to the chief executive, as head of paid service, and auditors. The proportion of Lexcel accreditation is far greater among local government than any other section of the legal profession. Not forgetting, that a Local Government Ombudsman has existed for many many years. Local government lawyers understand, and know how to deal with consumers; they were one of the first bodies to introduce equality and diversity policies in the work place.

The SRA introduced risk based outcome focused regulation for solicitors. The regulatory objectives are clear: “They serve to protect consumers from lawyers acting in their own financial interests over those of the consumer” so I repeat what threat do local government lawyers pose to the consumer? Remembering that local government consumers are much wider than the solicitors’ firm’s clients. Local government is accountable to the taxpayer – a much broader consumer base.

The Legal Services Board advocate “a presumption in favour of open competition rather than protect the status quo”. So why does the Law Society not accept this presumption? The Board also want “no element of regulation should act as a barrier to the provision of the legal services market”… and refer to a “strong profession…. whose voice should not be weakened by regulation”.

Only last year did Lord Heseltine produce his report No stone unturned, identifying local government to lead on economic growth programmes. Parliament is allowing local government to shape its own economic growth, but local government lawyers are unable to provide the legal services envisaged because of how they are currently regulated by the SRA. It is so frustrating for those lawyers to have the statutory powers to provide legal services in an innovative way, only to be restricted by sub-ordinate written rules of the SRA. What needs to be recognised is that local government legal services are not only provided by local government but also by the private sector and other voluntary and not-for-profit organisations. The Legal Services Board are keen for new approaches to legal services, yet it appears the Law society are trying to steer those services in a way in which, it appears, discriminate against local government lawyers.

The SRA are aware of, and accept the difficulties facing local government lawyers and I suggest the current restrictions should be lifted in their entirety, to allow complete freedom to act for their taxpayers, just as Parliament intended.

I will leave you with this quote from the Legal Services Board: “Legal services should be free to innovate and develop new approaches to meeting and satisfying consumer needs and demand. Actual and potential barriers to such innovation should be removed.”

I implore the Law Society, and the SRA, to embrace this in spirit and attitude to ensure a level playing field among all those it represents, and regulates, and not to distort the legal services market. There is plenty of legal work to go round the entire profession.

Liberate to innovate that’s my motto. Just let us free and we can ALL fly!

Maria Memoli is Law Society Council Member for Solicitors in Local Government.