Janet Noble attended the recent Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) conference for compliance officers for legal practice (COLPs) and compliance officers for finance and administration (COFAs) in Birmingham. In case you missed it, here’s her report.

The seventh annual SRA COLP and COFA Conference was held on 30 October at the International Conference Centre in Birmingham.

Attended by several thousand compliance professionals, the free event was a useful mix of presentations, breakouts and panel sessions, offering compliance officers up-to-date information on key compliance topics.

What was covered

The main sessions covered the following topics:

  • regulatory reform – what you need to know
  • cybercrime – protecting your firm
  • anti-money laundering – getting it right for your firm
  • customer information – our transparency rules and clickable logo
  • SQE and legal apprenticeships
  • the SRA’s new Accounts Rules – Q and A
  • compliance queries – from referrals to conflicts
  • tackling money laundering

Additional lunchtime sessions included:

  • opportunities to work outside a regulated firm
  • suspicious activity reporting (SARs)
  • learning from complaints (LeO)
  • introduction to the Serious Fraud Office (SFO)
  • opportunities to work differently
  • HMRC’s response to enablers of tax evasion
  • Brexit
  • HM Land Registry’s digital transformation

SRA priorities

You could get a sense of SRA priorities from the line-up and, whilst many assumed there would be a focus on the upcoming SRA Standards and Regulations coming into force on 25 November, in fact there was much more emphasis on anti-money laundering compliance.

Anti-money laundering

Thousands of firms are to be contacted by the SRA within the coming weeks asking what measures they have in place to combat money laundering.

As well as writing to the 7,000 at-risk firms, the SRA now plans an “extensive” programme of targeted, in-depth visits to firms and calling in more firms’ risk assessments.

Paul Philip, SRA chief executive, said: “Money laundering supports criminal activity such as people trafficking, drug smuggling and terrorism. The damage money laundering does to society means that every solicitor must be fully committed to preventing it. The vast majority would never intend to get involved in criminal activities, but poor processes open the door to money launderers.

“A call from us should not be the prompt for a firm to get their act together. You need to take immediate action now if you are not on top of your money laundering risks. Where we have serious concerns, we will take strong action.”

Focus for 2020

Apart from anti-money laundering, the SRA’s focus for the coming year also includes the following:

Client money

The SRA will treat misuse of client money as a particularly serious type of allegation.

Solicitors who are referred to the SDT for client money breaches risk serious sanction, including striking off the roll, if they have been dishonest.

Digital badge

The SRA’s digital logo was introduced as a voluntary tool last year and must be displayed on firms’ websites by 25 November.

Only around 40% of firms have added it to their website – meaning thousands of firms will need to act in the next few weeks.

Diversity in the profession

The SRA say that despite some progress the senior levels of the profession do not reflect society and large firms are the least representative.

They would like to see firms review their EDI data to better understand how to support everyone to progress in their career, maintain high standards and best meet the needs of your clients.

Information and cyber security

The SRA are concerned with the number of firms being targeted by cyber scams (77% in their small sample) and are urging firms to develop policies and practices to mitigate the risk of cyber-attacks.

Integrity and ethics

Following on from recent high profile Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) cases, there was confirmation that the SRA will continue to prosecute solicitors where behaviours are unethical, such as claims of sexual harassment by junior staff.

Price transparency

Following on from an audit earlier this year to assess compliance with publication of price and service data on firm websites, a second sweep will be carried out before the end of the year to test if firms have got the message.

SQE

There will be a second pilot of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) in December 2019, with a date of autumn 2021 for the first rollout of the single solicitors’ exam.