THE Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal has voiced concern about a sharp increase in the number of applications for certification of a case to answer filed by consumers of legal services against their solicitors.
This 'worrying trend' indicates there is 'still much work to be done to inform and educate consumers', says Susan Humble, clerk and chief executive of Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal Administration Limited. Writing in the watchdog's newly published annual report for 2013/14, she stresses that a lay application to the SDT should 'rarely be first choice' for the consumer if legal consumers complaints procedures are working effectively.
'The most common reason given for sending proceedings to the SDT is that the consumer either does not understand or does not know why their complaint has been rejected by other bodies, including the Legal Ombudsman and Solicitors Regulation Authority [pictured],' she notes.
Humble goes on to emphasise the watchdog's unease about SRA proposals to increase the maximum fine for 'traditional' firms from the current £2,000 to as much as £100,000, which would greatly reduce the SDT's workload.
She adds: 'The SDT has strong public interest reasons for opposing such an increase, with particular emphasis on independence, impartiality and transparency. The SDT feels uncomfortable about this development, which could realistically result in a perception by the public and legal services providers that the SRA is acting as investigator, prosecutor, jury and sentencing judge in what would be an exercise carried out on the papers without an oral hearing. The SDT's position is not influenced by self-interest or a desire to maintain its workloads.'
In his own report, president Andrew Spooner alludes to the fall in the number of prosecutions by the SDT, 'which the SRA attributes, in part, to the operation of outcomes-focused regulation'. Spooner adds however that the number of sitting days at the tribunal per case is rising, as cases are often more complex and 'fiercely contested' than has been the case in the past.