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SLG criticises pro bono restrictions in new SRA Handbook

Solicitors in Local Government has criticised proposed changes to the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s new Handbook that would restrict pro bono work by in-house solicitors.

In its latest round of consultation the SRA had suggested that it would be unable to continue to permit solicitors to provide pro bono reserved legal services to the public through an organisation which is not authorised, "because of the lack of any nexus between the organisation and the clients".

It added: "As this change in approach will impact on good work carried out by many in-house solicitors, we are endeavouring to resolve this issue in co-operation with the Legal Services Board.... We expect that this issue can be resolved, but if it cannot, we propose to use transitional provisions to permit ongoing work to be completed."

In its submission to the second consultation on the Handbook, which will underpin the regulation of solicitors and law firms from October 2011, the SLG said: “We do not support the changes proposed in Rule 4.10 restricting pro bono work for in-house solicitors. SLG has worked extremely hard to promote pro bono opportunities to local government practitioners working in partnership with LawWorks and the Citizenship Foundation.

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“The rationale for this change is not well argued in the consultation document and little consideration seems to have been given to the likely impact of the change. There is a significant change and should have been brought to the attention of the representative bodies separately given that there was little response to this section in the original consultation.“

The SLG also argued that there was inconsistency in the draft rules in terms of the insurance cover required to carry out such work. The group argued that pro bono should fall under the provision whereby the work is sanctioned by and the risk is covered by the employer.

“Where an in-house solicitor wishes to do pro bono work outside the scope of their employment this should be done through an appropriately licensed body,” it added.

In other areas, the SLG said a change of wording for Principle 9 of the draft Handbook from “promote” to “encourage” represented a watering down of the commitment to equality and diversity.

“We believe that ‘promote’ should be reinstated and is more akin to the public sector duty to which we already work as local government practitioners and we believe is best practice,” the submission said.

Welcoming the insertion of more specific references to in-house practice in the new SRA Code of Conduct, the SLG also said:

  • In order for outcomes focused regulation to be effective, regulatory staff “need a clear change of mindset from the current rule based approach and in that sense the profession will take its lead from how your [the SRA’s] staff discharge their functions”
  • All the outcomes should apply to solicitors working in local government in those cases where they are providing services to external clients “so as there is no distinction with our private sector colleagues”
  • The SRA should review whether Outcome 9 – covering outsourced legal activities or operational functions – should apply to in-house practice. “If this Outcome is designed to cover legal process outsourcing, it should not be assumed that this will not apply to local authority legal departments in the future”.

The consultation was the last opportunity for comments on the new Handbook. The SRA's aim is to bring all of its regulatory requirements into a single coherent structure.

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