The 2015 radical change in the Continuous Professional Development requirements for Solicitors

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A completely new approach to the Continuous Professional Development (CPD) requirements for Solicitors in England and Wales will soon be progressively phased in. It will be available to solicitors on a voluntary basis starting 1st April 2015 before being made compulsory for all solicitors in November 2016. CPD will still be required. A solicitor has to update his knowledge and skills on a regular basis and entities which deliver legal services (whether law firms or alternative business structures) need to ensure that their staff are in a position to deliver these services in a manner which complies with regulatory requirements, in particular the need to provide a proper standard of service to clients according to Principle 5 of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) Handbook (version 12 of the Handbook was published on 31 October 2014). However, the way CPD will be undertaken will differ fundamentally under the current and the new regimes.

Currently, solicitors need to complete a compulsory 16 hours’ CPD training per year and until very recently (1st November 2014) CPD could only be offered by accredited CPD providers. This has been going on for the last 30 years as the requirement for solicitors to undertake mandatory CPD was introduced by the Law Society in 1985. The system has been criticized by the SRA notably for being inflexible as well as focusing on procedural compliance rather than on outcomes, i.e. on how CPD might assure competence. It is seen as a ‘one size fits all’ requirement which is not targeted on the basis of risk. One solution could have been for the SRA to be more prescriptive regarding the contents of CPD training. It rejected this option on the ground that solicitors’ roles and therefore training needs are extremely diverse, from a highly experienced partner holding a senior management position in a global law firm to a young local authority lawyer working in the field of child protection law. Moreover, these training needs may vary in time. The SRA’s starting point was that the training and development of staff is fundamentally a matter for entities and individuals, not the SRA, and that it highly unlikely that an individual or entity would be able to deliver competent legal services over time without undergoing appropriate professional development. It considered that several entities already have appropriate training systems and that they were put in place not only for regulatory reasons but also for strong business and ethical reasons, which will remain. The SRA wished to promote a reflective approach to learning and development where the focus is shifted onto the level of competence required to meet the individual's and his / her entity's regulatory requirements. What is interesting is that the SRA remained of the view that such a radical change was required despite the majority of respondents to a 2014 consultation supporting another option (close to the current system).  The Legal Services Board approved the new approach to CPD.

Consequently, under the new regime, minimum CPD hours will no longer be required and CPD providers will not be authorised any more by the SRA (this part of the new regime has in fact already been implemented since November 2014 as part of a gradual implementation of the whole reform). Each individual and entity will instead be required to make an annual declaration that they have considered their CPD needs and taken appropriate measures to ensure continuing competence. The SRA has promised to publish in the course of spring 2015 a “toolkit outlining good practice in learning and development” as well as “a Competence Statement defining the competences practising solicitors are required to maintain”. On 12th March 2015, the Board of the SRA approved its Competence Statement for solicitors, which defines the standards expected of solicitors at the point of qualification and the steps they need to take to maintain these standards (http://www.sra.org.uk/sra/news/press/competence-statement-board-approves.page). There is no doubt that existing CPD providers will want to target their public accordingly. The new approach is presented as offering solicitors the possibility to tailor their own individual CPD more closely to their own specific needs as well as reducing regulatory burdens and costs (for ex. there are savings for both the SRA and the CPD providers). The SRA denies any lowering of standards as it will continue to hold entities and individuals to account for ensuring the competence of the services they provide. The SRA said that they would undertake risk based audit and targeted or thematic supervision of firms. They hope to be in a position where they can target their resources towards areas of higher risk. In the latter situation, they would be ready in some circumstances to prescribe mandatory and targeted training requirements.

(Altalex, 26 February 2015. Article by Emmanuel Guinchard)

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