The proposals would allow solicitors to provide reserved legal services to the public on a freelance basis. The plans would not require freelancers to be registered as a sole practitioner or to be employed by an authorised firm. Freelancers would not be allowed to hold client money or have employees. The proposal was prompted by the SRA’s belief that solicitors should be able to operate on a similar employment model to barristers and has been further encouraged by the growth of ‘virtual firms’ where solicitors operate almost independently under the name of a regulated firm.
The plans have not been well received, with the Legal Ombudsman also expressing concerns over a relaxing of restrictions for freelancers. The body, which handles legal complaints, questioned the protection available to consumers and stated:
“We envisage difficulties in understanding who has actually undertaken work for the consumer, whether this can be evidenced and whether we have powers to request evidence, […] Where provision of the legal service may be dependent on other providers in the business who fall outside of our jurisdiction, it may be difficult for us to investigate a complaint fully.”
The Law Society has also expressed similar concerns regarding consumer protection.
Criticism from the Legal Services Consumer Panel states that the plans could further crowd the market and create different levels of regulated solicitors. Jane Martin, Chair of the Panel, stated
“We do not believe that the SRA has struck the right balance between flexibility and the need for consumer protection,’ said Martin. ‘When taken together these proposals are unlikely to assist consumers, especially vulnerable ones, in choosing services at times of distress.”
The SRA consultation on the proposals is not closed with a response expected this spring. Any changed to be implemented as a result of the proposals are expected no earlier than the end of this year.