5 Top tips for using the SRA Handbook

Some years ago now the SRA published the ‘SRA Handbook’ which brings together all of the SRA’s rules and regulations, from the Code of Conduct to the Accounts Rules.  If you’re keen to brush up on the rules you could purchase a hardcopy of the handbook and work you way through it from page 1 but… do you really need to?  Almost certainly not.  Follow these top tips and you will save time, money and trees!

1. Get the SRA Handbook free online!

I know, I know, we all love a good hard copy but all of the SRA rules and regulations are available free of charge on the SRA website.  Perhaps even more importantly: the online versions stay up to date.  There are a number of costly publications which consist largely or entirely of these rules which, unlike the SRA’s online version on the website, go out of date very quickly (and may even be out of date when purchased!).  Do try to skim through books on compliance before buying them if you reasonably can. You might be surprised how much of what you’re paying for is out of date or available free of charge online.

Also, the online version of the rules have ‘pop ups’ of defined terms (they all appear in italics) which saves you fumbling back and forth between the rules and the list of definitions.

Take a look at the online SRA Handbook format here and see if you can get used to the online version.  You will find all of the SRA’s rules and regulations are listed by subject matter to the left of the screen.  The ‘Introduction’, ‘Principles’ and ‘Code of Conduct’ will be the key ones for most people.

Want to know what the rules looked like previously?  It’s simple (ish!) online.  You can compare the differences between the different editions of the Handbook which have been published since 6 October 2011 here and look at how the rules and regulations changed in the years prior to the Handbook on the SRA’s change tracker.

2. Think about what SRA rules and regulations you will actually need

Be honest, how often do you look at the SRA’s Compensation Fund Rules?  Or the Statutory Trust Rules?  Or the provisions for lawyers of other jurisdictions to qualify as solicitors in England and Wales?  Never had to yet?  Well, you’re not alone.  The majority of practitioners will not need regular access to the majority of the SRA’s rules and regulations.  Many many issues just don’t crop up for most people – so why pay for all of them?  If you want a paper copy of the rules you need to comply with day to day or to have a couple of copies on the bookshelf for staff then you can print them easily for free from the SRA website.  For example, follow this link to the SRA Principles or the SRA Code of Conduct and just look for the print option at the top right hand side of the screen.  You can fit both of those publications on to 20 sheets of A4 and that may be all that anyone in your office will need in hard copy (except for the accounts team of course who will have a shrine in the corner of the office dedicated to the Accounts Rules).

3. Principles, principles, principles

The SRA Principles extract from the previous code of conduct the core ethical duties which formed rule 1 in the old 2009 version of the Code of Conduct.  They include the fundamental principles of legal practice such as acting with integrity, acting in the best interests of the client and protecting client money and assets.

The SRA describes these core ethical duties as ‘all-pervasive‘ and ‘the starting point’ for any ethical issue.  The vital point for practitioners to note is that whatever provision of the Accounts Rules. or Code of Conduct which you’re looking at, for example, remember that you should also check if the Principles are relevant.  This could be particularly helpful when interpreting the current Code of Conduct where there is considerably less prescription and guidance than has been in place in the past. 

In practical terms the principles are an important moral compass for any compliance issue.  They can be a very helpful set of provisions for the COLP and COFA (see below) to focus on when seeking ‘buy in’ from staff and partners.  Everyone seems to be able to remember these core values simply enough and applied correctly they alone could steer fee earners clear of some of the most common and risky compliance issues.

We have some excellent training on the SRA Principles (‘Principles in practice’) from our online shop which can be delivered firm-wide online to ensure staff are approaching the principles correctly.

4. Watch out for ‘SRA speak’ and the Code of Conduct style

As a general word of warning, if you find a term in the SRA rules or regulations which is in italics, make sure that you check the SRA Glossary of terms (or use the ‘pop ups’ on the online version) for the meaning.  The italics means that the term in question has been defined by the SRA and sometimes the key to the provision in question might be found in the definitions section rather than the rules themselves.

Watch out for the following terms in particular:

  • ‘manager’ – salaried partners be warned!  If the SRA says that a rule or regulation applies to a manager it includes you.  The SRA use this term to refer to the principals of the business i.e. all partners if the firm is a partnership, members if the firm is an LLP and directors if the firm is a company;
  • ‘authorised body’ means any type of law firm regulated by the SRA; ‘legal services body’ means a traditional law firm regulated by the SRA and ‘licensed body’ means an alternative business structure (the new type of law firm which can have a large percentage of non lawyer ownership and control);
  • ‘lawyer‘ is a lot broader than some may think and includes Notaries and Costs Draftsmen.

Finally, as most will know by now, the terms ‘outcomes’ and ‘indicative behaviours’ in the new Code of Conduct replace the old concept of rules and guidance.  If you’re new to a compliance role then do take the time to read the Introduction to the SRA Code of Conduct to get to grips with this.  It really is fundamental to properly understanding how the rules work but some firms do continue to struggle with it.  Basically, Code of Conduct rules are described as ‘outcomes’  and abbreviated as O(1.3) rather than rule 1.3 etc.  They’re still rules, just rules which are more flexibly and purposively drafted.  Instead of having to do X or not do Y the Code of Conduct requires you to achieve an outcome, such as treating clients fairly.  The idea being that you should have more flexibility about how to comply with the Code if you’re told what the end result should look like rather than simply being given prescriptive instructions.  Instead of detailed written guidance to support you, there are ‘indicative behaviours’ which are examples of behaviour which the SRA will consider either a good or bad indicator of compliance.

5. Don’t throw out the old Code of Conduct just yet

The SRA previously indicated that if firms were compliant with the old Code of Conduct then they would probably be compliant with the new(er) one. The indication being then that in the majority of instances what constituted misconduct did not change from that set out in the old Code of Conduct.  Instead the Code was drafted in the more flexible style.  Sadly, there do appear to be some changes so relying too heavily on the old 2009 Code carries a pretty hefty health warning but if you are struggling to apply the current Code it may be worth seeing if there was any guidance on the issue in the old Code.  You can’t guarantee that the SRA will adopt the same approach as it had in the past (it has already changed direction on at least one issue that springs to mind) but the old Code did have a lot of helpful guidance and included a lot of detail which will not have changed.  You can still find the old Code of Conduct for free on the SRA website (make sure that you select the pre-October 2011 version in the ‘select version’ bar to the right of the screen).

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