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English Solicitors' body abandons on-line list of retired solicitors

Editorial Staff

The Solicitors Regulation Authority, which regulates solicitors in England and Wales, is to cease development of a database of retired solicitors who wish to remain on the Roll. Apparently, the Roll a costa lot.

How hard can it be to create, using e.g. PHP or RubyOnRails, a simple database application in which a closed user-group maintains a record, annually confirms membership, pays a fee and then sits back until the system sends an e-mail reminder or two a year later?

It's the stuff of plug-ins, open source snippets and even models within structured programming tools and, for a competent programmer, the work of a few hours or, at most, a few days.

But after 18 months of chaos, this simple application has defeated the SRA.

When a solicitor is admitted, he is assigned a Roll Number. That is his professional identity throughout his career and into retirement. And he needs it, and the right to continue to use the designation "Solicitor" because, unlike most other professions, he does not get letters after his name. After he ceases to practice, and gives up his practising certificate, he must keep his name on the Roll if he wishes to retain that designation and, even then, he must describe himself as "Solicitor, Retired" or "non-practising Solicitor." But if he is not on the Roll, then he is not a solicitor. A surveyor or an engineer is always an engineer: but when a Solicitor retires, he loses his standing.

To overcome this, the Law Society of England and Wales, which was until relatively recently, both the representative of the profession and its regulator, maintained a list of those who had retired but who remained on the Roll. Membership of The Law Society became free - or to be more precise, included in the Practising Certificate Fee. But when the Law Society was split into two, the keeping of the Roll went to the regulatory body.

The keeping of a name on the Roll is an exercise in wasted effort: paper forms are sent to retired solicitors all over the world. They must complete the form and either mail or fax it back to the SRA with a payment authority or cheque. Incredibly, there is no mechanism for making on-line payment. The form includes the Roll Number and other data including name and address. There is a box to tick saying that the Solicitor wishes to remain on the Roll. And a box for the insertion of an e-mail address.

To create a simple system of on-line forms and payment plus e-mail reminders is easy. Membership groups do it all the time, many using free open-source software designed for the job.

But the SRA has made a pig's ear of it from the beginning. No forms were sent out at the end of 2010, leaving retired solicitors to enquire, only to be told that there was an online system being developed and they would hear in due course. In the meantime, names would remain on the Roll, they were told. At least, that is what they were told when they eventually got a reply: the SRA website acknowledged enquiries but said that the target time for response was two weeks: there was no information on the website and retired solicitors were left, for a while at least, wondering if they had missed the mail and therefore a deadline with the result that they had been removed from the Roll.

In April 2011, letters were mailed telling retired solicitors to visit the SRA website and register. It was a complex system that included a double confirmation system. More paper. And a confirmation that all future correspondence would be by e-mail. That did not happen. In fact, nothing happened.

It turns out that the whole system is in chaos. It does not work and the SRA has no hope that they can ever make it work. Even the database system for active solicitors does not work. The SRA has decided, reasonably, to give priority to that database system. That means scrapping the planned on-line system for retired solicitors.

In September, the SRA will send out paper forms. Retired solicitors will have to confirm the data, tick a box and send it back with payment, just the same as before. No fee will be charged for 2011 and the fee for 2012 will be the same as before i.e. GBP20. If they miss the November deadline - a real risk for solicitors who have retired abroad, in some cases to places where the mail is unreliable, they will be removed from the Roll and will need to apply to be restored.

Under the previous (and now, again, present) system, no acknowledgement of the notice to remain on the Roll was given - and there was no way for a retired solicitor to check on-line if he did, in fact, remain on the Roll.

The qualification as a solicitor is, and has been since the mid 1980s, a post-graduate qualification. If The Law Society of England and Wales was thinking things through, it would create a simple system of letters to go after a Solicitor's name which could continue after retirement so that its members do not lose their status - which is a significant part of their identity - after they cease practice. Then the need to remain on the Roll would be almost entirely obviated.

The alternative is for the SRA to recruit a couple of recent graduate programmers to use development tools to put in place a system that is both quick and easy to develop and maintain. And if they ask really nicely, they could probably have it running by the end of next week.