Hundreds of law firms risk losing their licence to practise within a matter of weeks unless they appoint compliance officers for legal practice (COLP), and finance and administration (COFA). Some 400 have still to do so, despite more than three months having elapsed since the 31 July deadline and repeated reminders from the Solicitors Regulation Authority.
Speaking at the launch of the SRA's new central Birmingham office last night, board chairman Charles Plant gave the sternest warning yet that the regulator is preparing to sanction firms that do not comply. Authorisation of COLPs and COFAs should be completed by 31 December, ahead of the officers taking up their new responsibilities on 1 January. If firms have not nominated officers by 1 January the SRA can revoke their licence and take disciplinary action.
The nomination process is not however linked to the practising renewal round. This means PC renewals will not necessarily be denied if solicitors work in firms that have yet to appoint COLPs and COFAs.
Lord chief justice Lord Judge joined over 100 guests drawn from the legal profession and other involved groups at last night's launch event at The Cube building. Plant described the move to The Cube - which brought together staff from the SRA's former premises in Leamington Spa and Redditch - as 'a truly definitive step in the transformation of the SRA', with the relocation creating 'greater efficiency, reduced operating costs and enhancement in staff morale'.
Plant used the opportunity to deny any charge that the SRA is becoming a heavy-handed regulator, stating that so long as firms are able to demonstrate they have appropriate risk and governance structures in place, the SRA will direct its attention to those which cannot.
He also announced a new initiative for the SRA - its version of the 'Red Tape' challenge, which aims to cut bureaucracy and the regulatory burden placed on solicitors. This will be launched in mid-December.
Lord Judge, meanwhile, stressed that one of the main challenges facing the SRA is to ensure alternative business structures are regulated rigorously. 'High standards have to be maintained; anything less will let the public down,' Judge said.
Judge also urged the ongoing Legal Education and Training Review to consider how to prepare solicitors for a judicial career.