Leading from the front
SRA Update Issue 9 – August 2009
Welcomed by many as saviours, but by some with suspicion, the Practice Standards Unit (PSU) has a frontline role in protecting the public while also raising the standards of law practices throughout England and Wales.
PSU Head Karen Nokes talks to SRA Update about the work of her unit.
Karen Nokes is well aware that a visit from PSU does not start champagne corks popping at many law firms.
"We are not always the most welcome of guests," she admits, with a wry smile, "But attitudes are changing, law firms are now recognising that we really can be a great help to them.
"Our role is to protect the public but it is also to assist practitioners to improve standards and services. We get some fantastic feedback and records show there is a direct correlation between our visit and a drop in complaints against that particular firm."
With more than 50 people in the unit—most of which are home-based workers—the PSU carries out over a 1,000 "visits" every year, responding to referrals made to them based on information from a variety of sources.
Before any visit, PSU members will make a detailed study of the firm in question in order to determine if a visit is actually necessary. If the answer is yes, the firm is contacted with a date and time.
Once begun, a visit usually takes two days and a report is submitted within 21 days, but continued contact with the firm can run for a long time after that—sometimes up to 12 or 18 months.
"Obviously we are prepared to go back and ensure our recommendations are being acted upon but we are also willing to continue offering help and advice. It isn't our aim to put forward a lot of do's and don'ts and then just leave the firm to struggle. We are also there to help them achieve compliance and to operate to the highest standards possible," explains Karen.
PSU advisers are checking that a practice is putting clients first and providing a good quality of service. This involves, among other things, asking lots of questions, examining files and documentation and verifying processes and systems.
The most common problem areas are in conveyancing, probate, litigation and family matters, while PSU advisers also find issues around regulated activities, referrals of business, anti-discrimination provisions, complaints procedures and accounts rules.
Karen worked in criminal and civil litigation before joining the Law Society's Monitoring and Investigation Unit in 1993, where she spent six years carrying out "visits" before becoming head of a caseworking unit and then, in 2007, Head of Practice Standards Unit.
The PSU is divided into four regions, Northern, Eastern, Western and London/South—each has a manager, or two in the case of London/South.
Karen is proud of the "pro-active" nature of the PSU and of the fact that more and more firms are coming to appreciate and respect the work it carries out.
"What we are doing benefits the whole profession. In the eyes of the public bad solicitors drag the good ones down with them. We have to show that there is a "watchdog" working hard to make sure all solicitors work within the rules and for the benefit of their clients.
"I make no apologies to those solicitors who show a lack of integrity or who deliberately break the rules, I still have the same passion for fairness and equality that I had when I first became a solicitor and if our investigations expose bad practices then that is part of our job.
"However, if a firm genuinely needs help and advice in order to operate within the rules and codes of the legal profession then we are more than willing to help them in any way possible," says Karen.
Karen is looking forward to the many challenges that lie ahead.
"The new legal landscape offers a number challenges to the profession and will bring many pressures to bear. However, if firms pay attention to their core duties and put client care and public interest at the heart of everything they do then they will be on the right road to meeting our requirements," she says.