Thursday, 6 December 2012

Regulation issue

I had the joy yesterday of completing the application to renew my firm’s authorisation - by the Solicitors Regulation Authority - and my own individual practising certificate, using the now legendary MySRA web portal.

It is only right to observe that – so far – we have not had a problem with the software this year.  Antony Townsend and his staff appear to have done what they set out to do.

One hopes it is part of a broad improvement.  I would have dealt with the renewal earlier but it is only quite recently that the regulator has understood that I am only running one business.

For most of 2012 I have laboured with the apparent belief that though I had secured recognition of my limited company as an authorised body and notified transfer of existing business to the new entity, I still wanted to operate as an unincorporated sole practitioner too…

I have had my nominations of myself as Compliance Officer for Legal Practice (“COLP”) and Compliance Officer of Finance and Administration (“COFA”) confirmed for the corporate entity.  We will see whether I am taken to task, as threatened, for not donning the same hats in a former business.

So it all looks a lot more cheerful ... except, that is, for the fees.

Mine have increased 50% this year and very little of that has anything to do with turnover.

For those who don’t know, the fees payable by solicitors, specifically, to their regulator have four components.

Individually we pay a practising certificate fee which is the same across the board and an organisation levy based on a sliding scale according to turnover.  We would always like it to be lower but these are not what stick in the throat.

This year I am paying the thick end of £1,500 by way of “contribution to the Compensation Fund”.  Again there is a personal levy which is £92 in all cases but then there is the organisation levy…

As I understand the fee structure for this year, that is £1,340 regardless of size.  So, as the sole director of a small incorporated practice – albeit with a growing number of other personnel – I will pay exactly the same contribution as a national firm with tens or even hundreds of partners.

How is that right?

Well, some point to a prejudice – sorry perception – that sole practitioners are the scourge of the industry because, obviously, we do exactly what we want and miss no opportunity to indulge in heinous activity that will require the profession as a whole to compensate somebody.

This yardstick is presumably applied regardless of whether one has policies, procedures and systems meeting and exceeding the Law Society’s Quality Management Standard.

It doesn’t matter that you have never had a negligence claim (touch wood) or that there has only been one virtually insignificant complaint in 3 years of busy practice.

Nor does it matter that big firms greedy for turnover and looking to improve tight margins compromise on service and expose the profession to further risk. In many cases, though the same firms have paid thousands upon thousands of pounds in referral fees to insurers with one consequence of fuelling the current argument for reductions of fixed fees in “low value” road traffic and other injury claims. 

They have helped give credence to liability insurers’ lie that the fixed costs were calculated to include an allowance for referral fees and now those are to be banned, then the costs should be reduced.

I have never paid referral fees and I don’t spend the equivalent of £500 and more per case in marketing to generate the business we do.

Again not wishing to tempt fate, we gain business by not screwing up what we do in the first place and gaining repeat business and referrals from happy clients.

You might be forgiven for thinking that we take a pride in our service delivery, don’t plan to compromise on quality and aim to maintain those standards despite the government’s relentless assault on funding.

I expect there is a fair chance that the cowboys will ride out of town when they can no longer make a quick buck.  It wouldn’t surprise me that firms like mine then get stung with yet more levy.

Meanwhile, having paid through the nose for this year’s renewal one way or another, I will be doing a big part of the SRA’s job for them with effect from 1 January.  Every time there is even a minor occurrence that is not strictly in accordance with the rules – even though it may not be within our immediate control – I will have to put on one or both of my COLP and COFA hats and decide whether I report myself and then wait…for what?

This is regulation.  David Cameron doesn’t want onerous regulation for the media because it is important to have a free press.

What about the legal system, Prime Minister?  Do you not think that is something we should also try to retain? 

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