Antony Townsend – chief executive for the SRA
Antony, firstly can you tell us a bit about your work at the SRA?
My work at the SRA is like many chief executives’ roles – creating the environment in which my colleagues can deliver their objectives, working with the Board to establish strategic direction, ensuring that we use resources wisely, and explaining what we are trying to do to a wide variety of external audiences.
What do you think is the organisation’s primary role in today’s shifting legal landscape?
To uphold high standards in the delivery of legal services; to deliver the reforms brought about by the Legal Services Act in order to improve the provision of legal services to consumers; and to be at the forefront of developing new ways of regulation which help good firms to deliver good services, which assist problem firms to improve, and which prevent the incompetent and the wicked from being involved in legal services.
What kind of demands are you and your team under on a day to day basis?
The demands are fairly relentless. There is the day to day volume of routine work which must be undertaken; there is the pushing forward of reforms – for example, the embedding of Outcomes Focused Regulation and risk-based regulation both within the organisation and externally; there are the demands of our external stakeholders; and there are the proper constraints upon our resources (we do not have a bottomless pit of money, nor should we have). Balancing those factors is the biggest challenge we face.
Since the launch of OFR in 2011, how well have solicitors adapted to the new compliance regime?
Generally very well. There was a lot of concern amongst some solicitors about the uncertainty (as they saw it) which OFR might create. I hope that the experience of the first year or so has helped to allay those concerns.
What kind of support did the SRA give and how effective do you think it was?
We did a lot of work with roadshows, our website, webinars, and our Ethics Guidance service to try to help solicitors to comply, but inevitably we could not reach everybody. The comments we received about those activities were almost all very positive. However, this is a continuous process, not a one-off, and we will be working with practitioner groups – who have been enormously helpful to us – to keep providing support.
Are you surprised at how many ABSs have emerged this year?
To be honest, we did not know. The numbers have been within the broad range we identified. We are pleased with the wide range of applications – which was the objective the ABS provisions were designed to deliver.
What do you think will be the big trends moving forward for ABSs?
We will see continuing consolidation, acquisitions, and especially applications in the PI sector.
What are your thoughts on the banning of personal injury referral fees?
The SRA was not convinced that a ban on PI referral fees would necessarily deliver the objectives which those proposing the ban were advancing. For us, the priorities are transparency, choice, quality and access for consumers. We have worked hard with a wide range of stakeholders to prepare for the ban, which we will enforce.
What do you think are the biggest threats/ opportunities for the legal sector over the coming years?
The opportunities are huge, as some of the developments in ABS and traditional law firms demonstrate. New models of delivering legal services could be hugely beneficial to consumers. The biggest threats are law firm collapses, and threats to access to justice – driven by much wider issues including the economic environment and changes to legal aid.
Finally, is there anything you’d like to say to readers of The Brief?
The legal sector has enormous opportunities for development; but it has to get used to operating in a much more uncertain environment in which being nimble is increasingly important. We hope that the changes we have been and are making at the SRA will help that process – but ultimately, it’s down to legal professionals, not the regulator, to seize the advantage.