President's Letter (April 2016)

As I write this, there are less than 6 weeks until the annual dinner. I hope that you will be coming to City Hall on 22 April to dine well, to celebrate the achievements of the winner of the Simon Mumford Memorial Award and to listen to our speaker, Keir Starmer. We are honoured and very lucky that Keir Starmer is coming to the dinner. He is a lawyer with an international reputation who has enjoyed a varied and distinguished career. His thoughts and insights will be of great interest to practitioners of all specialisms. Turning from the sublime to the ridiculous, I have to say something at the dinner, too.

There are 5 stages to delivering an after dinner speech. The first is disinterested dread. This is the feeling one experiences after accepting the invitation (in my case, of becoming junior vice president of the Society) and realising that one must speak at the dinner. The second stage is anticipatory anxiety, in which the prospect of the speech is looming and one starts to note what happens, is eaten and said at other dinners. Stage three is paralysing panic, when the sufferer knows s/he should be gathering thoughts about what to say in the speech but is too horrified by the prospect to do so. A symptom of this stage is waking in the middle of the night from a nightmare in which one has stood up to speak at the dinner to find that either (a) no-one is there, or (b) that the room is packed but everyone gets up to leave as one stands up to speak, or (c) that one starts the speech with an inappropriate or distasteful joke which results in shocked and outraged silence. I hope that I’m emerging from this to stage four, which is writing the speech, though I expect that stage 3 overlaps with stage 4 for several weeks. The final stage, of course, is delivering the speech.

As part of my preparation I was delighted to accept the invitation of Alexis Thomas of NewLaw, the chair of CILEx’s South Wales branch, to attend its annual dinner on 20 February at the St David’s Spa Hotel. There was an excellent turnout, a very good awards ceremony and excellent speeches from Alexis and David Edwards, the president of CILEx for England and Wales. I’ve got quite a challenge on my hands to make a better speech than Alexis.

At the CILEx dinner I sat beside David Edwards and Helen Whiteman, the chief executive of CILEx Regulation and her husband. It says something about the good relations between CILEx and its regulator that I did not feel like a referee as I sat, ate and drank amongst them. In my Chancery Lane News column elsewhere in this issue I suggest that the relations between the Law Society and the chief executive of the SRA are not so cordial.

The Society has responded to the SRA’s consultation on Assessing Competence. This concerned the proposals to require all entrants to the profession to sit a centrally set Solicitors’ Qualifying Examination and to dispense with the need for a qualifying law degree, graduate diploma in law and LPC. Many firms and individuals in South Wales have responded too, including Cardiff Law School and Monmouthshire Law Society. Apparently the SRA received 250 responses, twice the average number of responses to their consultations, and if they have not exactly received an avalanche of responses as has been reported, a significant number of people and organisations cared sufficiently about the standards required for entry to the profession to tell the SRA what they think of the proposals. The members of our Regulatory Issues Sub-Committee who contributed to the Society’s response are Hugh Price, who co-ordinated it, Rachael Selleck, Clive Thomas, Byron Jones, Tom Danter, Richard Fisher and me. The response has been posted on the Society’s website.

The SRA has a record of ignoring critical responses to recent consultations on education and training. This arrogance is undesirable in a regulator and leads the regulated community to mistrust the SRA. We hope rather than expect that it will take the responses into account when it decides what it will do to satisfy itself of the competence of qualifying solicitors. The decisions they make will be crucial to the future and wellbeing of the solicitors’ profession. They may also be crucial to the future of the SRA, too.

We are now moving into a new phase of legal services regulation. Phase 1, professional self-regulation, is now a nostalgic memory for solicitors who are more than 35 years old. Phase 2, the period in which the Legal Services Board oversaw the approved regulators and the three largest approved regulators were required to separate their representative and regulatory arms may be coming to an end if rumours that the government is keen to make the regulators “independent” are true. If those rumours prove to be correct, phase 3 will be the time of the state-controlled regulator or regulators of legal services. This would be an unsettling development for everyone who cares about the rule of law.

We will have an opportunity to make our views known about this sinister possible development when the anticipated consultation is issued. This is likely to be sometime in April. Although the Coalition government abolished the guidance that consultation periods should last for 13 weeks to give interested parties sufficient time to respond thoughtfully, it is likely that the forthcoming consultation on regulation will be subject to a 13 week consultation. This Society will be responding. I urge you to respond, too.

When I became president of this Society, I wanted to raise the profile of legal services regulation as a local legal issue. I didn’t know that the government would be consulting on the subject this year, or that the Competition and Markets Authority would be conducting a similar study. But it was apparent from my involvement on the Law Society council that the current regulatory environment is unstable and may change. In my first speech as president I stated that I would be inviting the chair of the SRA and chair of the LSB to visit Cardiff to speak to the profession about their visions of the future of the regulation of the profession.

I have invited Enid Rowlands, the SRA chair to visit Cardiff to speak to the profession, and she has accepted, but her diary commitments rule out any dates until October. Given her chief executive’s opinion that the Law Society should no longer receive the funding from the PC fee that it currently obtains under Legal Services Act 2007 s 51, it is just as well that we won’t hear from the SRA during the forthcoming consultation period. As a Law Society council member, I would not wish to invite the SRA and its senior management to an event which they could use as a charm offensive against the Law Society. If the SRA can’t visit Cardiff until October, I would not want to invite the LSB to a similar event until the autumn either. So I am inviting them to Cardiff but they won’t be speaking about these issues until the autumn, after the consultation has ended.

Why do I want to hear from both regulators? If the SRA (and its counterparts, the BSB and CILEx Regulation) are given the “independence” they want the legal profession will be paying for a surfeit of state regulators of legal services. Either they, or the LSB, will be unnecessary. If there is going to be state regulation of legal services, there will only be one state regulator of legal services. We should hear from both the LSB and the SRA so we can form our own views as to which should survive and which should perish. 


David Dixon

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