The updated Solicitors Accounts Rules come into force along with the updated Solicitors Handbook on 25th November 2019.
The New Solicitors Accounts Rules can be found here.
There are also a number of guidance notes which can be found as follows:
Outlined in this Legal Cashier Blog Post are the main changes to the rules. We will recap some of these changes below.
Practical changes to the rules
Client account transfers against disbursements
Under the new rules, 2.1 (d) outlines that client money is defined as for “fees and any unpaid disbursements if held or received prior to delivery of a bill for the same”.
This is interpreted that transfers should no longer be made from client account, directly against disbursements on the office account. A disbursement-only bill should be raised and funds transferred from client account against that bill.
Funds on account of costs and disbursements may be held in office account
Rule 2.2 defines that where the “only client money you hold or receive” is for fees and disbursements and 2.2(b) “you do not for any other reason maintain a client account” that “you are not required to hold this money in a client account if you have informed your client in advance of where and how the money will be held”.
Essentially this means that firms that only hold client money on account of fees may no longer need to operate a client account and may hold this money in office account. However this does conflict with rule 4.1 which states that “you keep client money separate from money belonging to the authorised body”.
Third party managed accounts
The new rules, 11.1, outline that Third Party Managed Accounts may be used, rather than using a traditional client account if the use of the account does not result in “you holding the client’s money” and you inform the client of the arrangement.
The term “office money” is removed
The new rules only refer to “client money” and the protection of client money. This means that a number of rules relating to the office account have been removed or amended.
Under the new rules the concept of unpaid or incurred disbursements has been removed, meaning disbursements are only to be considered as disbursements when paid.
Previous rules had strict timescales for undertaking tasks such as:
These timescales have been removed in the new rules and replaced by “promptly”.
Suspense accounts & “fixed fee payment” accounts
Rule 8.1 of the new rules identify that ledgers should be identified by “the client’s name and an appropriate description of the matter to which they relate”.
Under the ethics guidance, “helping you keep accurate client accounting records”, the guidance outlines that “ledger accounts should include the name of the client or other person or trust for whom the money is held and containing a description of the matter or transaction”.
This is further evidenced under ethics guidance “planning for and completing an accountants report” which lists reasons for qualifying an Accountants Report may include “ledgers failing to include reference to a client”. Further the reason “improper use of suspense accounts” may lead to qualifying a report.
There are a number of changes relating to Accountant’s reports. A report is not required per 12.2 if:
Continued focuses of the rules
Providing banking facilities
Rule 3.3 reaffirms that all receipts, payments and transfers should be “in respect of the delivery by you of regulated services”.
There have been a number of recent SDT cases involving using the client account as a banking facility and the rules still focus on not providing banking facilities to clients.
Rule 2.5 ensures “client money is returned promptly to the client or the third party for whom the money is held, as soon as there is no longer any proper reason to hold those funds”.
This is viewed as a high risk area that the SRA will continue to monitor. The new rules advise that money is returned “promptly” and firms will need to define their view of promptly and document their process for dealing with residual balances.
Rule 8.3 maintains that at least every five weeks a bank reconciliation must be undertaken which is signed by the COFA.
What you need to do (now)
Firms need to look at current timescales for undertaking processes and deciding if:
(a) to continue using them or
(b) depart from them. If departing from them, firms will need to justify why. These include:
Ensure policies and procedures are documented
Each firm will need to detail its policies and procedures. An accounts manual is required if not already in place.
Due to the removal of prescribed rules, the appointed reporting Accountant will need a specified set of policies and procedures to assess the Accountant’s report against.
This includes defining timescales for “promptly” as above.
The guidance notes detailed in “helping you keep accurate client accounting records” require:
Consider the use of the client account
Do you hold client money other than on account of fees and disbursements? Do you need a client account and accountants report?
What you need to do after 25th Nov 19
Ensure that you review and sign the bank reconciliations every 5 weeks.
Ensure that you understand the bank reconciliations and that any unreconciled items are queried and uncashed cheques are reviewed and cancelled.
Review aged client account balances on a regular basis with fee earners and ensure that attempts are made to return residual client account balances.
Review bank reconciliations including unreconciled or uncleared items and challenge them monthly.
Review debit client account balances and office credit balances.
Undertake a review of compliance with the Solicitors Accounts Rules, policies and procedures per the items listed in Planning for and completing an accountants report
Ascentant Accountants are able to provide consultancy and assistance prior to and after implementation of the rules. This includes:
For details on consultancy services and pricing, please contact our Legal Cashiers.