Perhaps the most welcome aspect of the decision this week by the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s board to approve a rule change allowing local government solicitors to charge charities is the greater understanding the regulator is showing about the realities of local authority legal practice.
This is thanks to the efforts of the Association of Council Secretaries and Solicitors (ACSeS) and Solicitors in Local Government (SLG) as well as individual local government solicitors and legal departments. Many of the responses to the SRA red tape initiative consultation, for example, came from local government, including 56 from Kent County Council.
But there has equally been a notable willingness in the SRA to engage with the sector. In September 2012, it invited a number of local authority lawyers – including chairs of SLG branches and members of ACSeS – to provide advice and take part in research as part of its wider review of the regulation on in-house practice. Two months later, the SRA’s Executive Director of Policy, Richard Collins, spoke at the ACSeS development forum.
The retention of a geographical restriction in the Practice Framework Rules – the ability to charge will only apply where the charity concerned has objects wholly or partly related "to the employer’s area" – will, of course, disappoint those who highlight the increasingly ‘cross-border’ nature of local government service delivery.
All is not yet lost on that front, with the SRA proposing that the suggested removal of the reference to the employer's area should be considered at a further date as part of the wider review. However, judging by this comment – "In our assessment this suggestion may increase risk as local authorities would be allowed to provide legal services on effectively a commercial basis, without the public protections attached to entity regulation, for clients with whom the local authority has no connection" – the regulator may take some persuading.
The immediate change will now go to the Legal Services Board for approval. It seems highly unlikely that there will be any great hold-up, given that only this week the LSB said the revised Handbook “continues to include a large number of rules without clear evidence to justify the restrictions they impose and thus their retention”.
All eyes will then turn to the wider review – a much larger piece of work for the SRA but one that the LSB is urging it to complete as soon as possible – and what will come out of that. The red tape consultation has proved a promising start.