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SRA and legal sector changed ‘beyond recognition’ in past seven years, says Townsend

The changes in the legal sector over the past five years have been “unprecedented, relentless and at times, exhausting” Antony Townsend, Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) Chief Executive, said today.

Opening the SRA’s first dedicated conference for compliance officers, Townsend, who steps down as Chief Executive next February after seven years in the role, concluded that although reform was far from complete, the pace of change had struck “broadly the right compromise between bloody revolution and the traditional Jarndyce and Jarndyce pace of the law”.

In what is likely to be his last major speech as Chief Executive, he reflected upon the changes he had witnessed during his time at the helm. The sector had changed from a model in which “regulation was a central function for policing ne’er-do-wells to one where regulation is an ethical enterprise in which individuals, organisations and the regulator are jointly involved, “ Townsend told the conference.

He described the task of setting up the SRA in 2006, as “somewhat daunting”. There was “a prescriptive, bureaucratic, regulatory approach that was unfit for purpose and expensive; a market that was restricted and in many areas lacked innovation; an Assigned Risks Pool which placed the organisation and those regulated at serious risk of massively escalating costs; a reactive and often secretive organisation; an infrastructure in desperate need of an overhaul; and a requirement to make regulation independent of the representative body”.

However, he added that “since that time the way we regulate, the way firms can practise, and the way clients are protected, has changed beyond recognition. Central to this is the SRA’s decision to move away from a tick-box approach to regulation, to one which focuses on achieving the right outcomes for clients.”

Townsend said the decision to put the ”Code of Conduct on a crash diet, slimming it down immensely and returning to first principles and outcomes, was controversial and resisted by many. I know there remain some mixed views about this, but in practice the operation of the new code has been relatively uneventful – and stripping away layers of detailed regulation was essential as we introduced the possibility of more flexibility in the market.”

The SRA’s approach, he said, was already paying dividends, with a move away from formal disciplinary measures to a more proactive way of working to improve services and manage risk. He added: “Regulation needs to be like radiotherapy treatment – highly targeted on the problem. If it used too liberally or without sufficient focus, it risks doing more damage than good.”

Townsend said he was proud of the significant progress which had been made in delivering the transformation which had been needed but the SRA was still “a young regulator which needed to mature rapidly”. More needed to be done in completing the reform of the legacy, rules-based and professional body-led, system of regulation to become a modern, public interest system meeting the principles of better regulation.

“So, neither bloody revolution nor timid incremental creep. I like to think of the legal services revolution as being more like the Prague Spring than the French Revolution. But seven years of regulating solicitors has not dimmed my enthusiasm for continuous improvement in legal services and its regulation,” he added.

The conference took place at the Hilton Metropole in Birmingham. 

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