Law firms could be given the chance to bring non-lawyer professionals in as partners without becoming an alternative business structure, the Gazette understands.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority will next month propose reforms to the separate business rule - which could include removing it altogether.

The move is designed to allow traditional law firms the flexibility to compete with multi-disciplinary practices (MDPs) which can offer a range of services.

The SRA feels it necessary to level the playing field after today agreeing to relax rules about MDPs entering the legal services market.

In board papers explaining its decision, the regulator said 'traditional' firms should be allowed to conduct a wider range of activities - a proposal supported by most of the profession. 

These changes would be subject to a consultation to be opened next month. It will include proposals to scrap the separate business rule.

The SRA added: 'Such changes will assist existing providers that do not wish to become ABSs to provide multi-professional services (for example, by taking on chartered accountants) and thus increase their market share.'

The SRA board today voted to allow MDPs to offer non-reserved legal services without being covered by more than one regulator. This would apply, for example, to accountancy firms already regulated by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales that offer tax advice, which will no longer also be subject to SRA regulation.

Crispin Passmore, executive director of the SRA, said would-be MDPs are ready to move into 'most parts' of the legal profession to deal with clients ranging from small businesses to major corporations.

The SRA board paper added: 'These changes will benefit consumers by providing greater competition in the provision of legal services, greater opportunities to access holistic services and potential reductions in cost.'

It is a move that will be welcomed by the accountancy profession but opposed by the Law Society, which argued it was wrong in principle that legal work done in an organisation regulated by the SRA should be subject to different regulators.

'Removing legal work from the SRA regulation where it is undertaken by an accountant within an ICAEW-regulated firm will create confusion for clients,' said a spokesman for the Society. 

'Where a client is provided legal work by an SRA-regulated firm then they have a right to expect that work will be regulated to the same high standard regardless of the qualification of the individual providing it.'

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