Strengthening the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) Code of Conduct
19/12/17 by Anna Rowe
Since my Catfishing experience I have been nothing but stunned at the reluctance from those in a position of authority and power to step up to the mark and deal with the individual that abused and exploited us (I am 1 of 11 so far). This relatively unknown behaviour (termed as Catfishing in America) has grown exponentially as technology has made this form of abuse and exploitation as easy as walking into a very over stocked sweet shop. There is that word again…abuse. Sexual abuse, emotional abuse, psychological abuse, financial abuse, verbal abuse, physical abuse. All of these behaviours are things that good, normal and honest people recognise as very wrong.
So when you discover, or experience, having been abused or exploited by a solicitor ‘the profession that is an integral part of our judicial system’ and still seemingly considered by the public as ‘pillars of the community’ you would expect for their regulators to take them to task to retain trust in the profession. Right?
My own and many other peoples’ experiences have shown, that when we alert the SRA to the misconduct of solicitors, and as their CEO Paul Philip claims “there are fundamentally important standards that the public, and I repeat, the public must demand of practicing solicitors, these standards include honesty, integrity and confidentiality” we are dismissed. Why?
The research began. The findings were quite frankly, horrifying. Here is a report of some of that research.
The current role of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) with regards to the standards of governing issues of misconduct and whistleblowing.
There is increasing concern that the current regulation governing solicitors is not fit for purpose and that public confidence in the profession is incredibly low. This is due to the overly high tolerance of misconduct towards clients and non-clients. The current code’s criteria is restricted to cover complaints from consumers/clients and third parties/non-clients who are involved with the solicitor only in a professional capacity. It does not cover complaints from third parties/non-clients outside of professional capacity which would cover standards/conduct in private life.
This is particularly worrying as there have been a number of complaints of sexual abuse and other misconduct which are being either ignored or dismissed by the SRA without any investigation. In stark contrast, the police, teachers and MPs have to comply with standards in public life as well as professional. There is no justification for providing a cloak of ‘secrecy’ to lawyers than for any other profession. Just like doctors, lawyers are held in positions of trust – public interest in transparency is arguably just as critical for lawyers, as it is, for other public servants, such as, police and MPs.
The SRA are an independent arm of the Law Society and a self-regulated body funded through law firms and individual solicitors. A levy is paid which contributes to a ‘compensation fund’ and the salaries of the regulators. Individuals also pay for their ‘practising certificate’ which is admission to the roll (and obligation to abide by the code and principles). The SRA’s perceived role is to regulate the conduct of solicitors through ‘Principles and Code of Conduct’ by way of ‘risks’. The CEO Paul Philip, claims vehemently that: ‘the public must demand high standards of the lawyers they regulate’, as public trust is paramount to the profession.
Issues have arisen as we ‘the public’ attempt to demand these standards. Initial concerns arose from several personal case studies with similar themes (abuse against women) and the dismissal of us, by the SRA, to regulate this misconduct as it occurred in private life or as non-clients. Research into this regulator then revealed a much wider problem as it appears that despite the smoke screen of a Code of Conduct which visualises expectations of the highest standards, the reality is the exact opposite.
Despite the ‘Code of Conduct’ and ‘Principles’ showing that a solicitor must ‘act with integrity’ and ‘behave in a way that maintains public trust in you ‘and’ your profession’ the SRA have simply dismissed several very serious cases, that revolve around private life/non-client scenarios. There are likely thousands more, as a request to see their version of FOI has uncovered that out of 11294 reports in 2015/16 alone, opened only 5081 investigations. This resulted in only 377 sanctions by the SRA, of which 236 were merely a letter to remind them of the code requirements. A FOI request was made to ascertain which ‘risks’ formed the 377 sanctions and the nature of the 6213 reports that were not investigated at all. They say the information is not available, however a table in the Annual Review shows the top 10 issues of cases. Only 129 cases from 11294 reports were considered ‘serious enough’ for tribunal (Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal), and only 75 solicitors were struck off. This again shows the abuse of power and knowledge of the law being used to ‘evade reprimand and consequence’ as most cases put forward are cut and dried where the lawyer cannot wriggle out of it with threat of legal action. Other findings on what the SRA consider minor to serious in the report are frightening. A brief look at the public cases from the SDT shows some astounding cases including a solicitor charged, and in prison for attempted murder (notwithstanding he had mental health issues) but was given indefinite suspension (meaning it could be repealed), not even struck off.
Tolerance levels are too high:
The risk assessment methodology shows that a financial fraud of £5000 or less is considered minor, with a serious financial fraud reaching over 100K (catastrophic £500k+). However, the maximum fine for a solicitor found with their hands in the till is £2000. The minor £5k to that one individual which is considered as ‘minor’ to the SRA could be someones life savings. ANY financial fraud is dishonest and should result in severe reprimand. This is not happening. A similar theme is set for other RISKS within the assessment, including the vulnerability of the individual/s affected. Abuse of a woman is not even classified outside of ‘professional capacity’ in the workplace. A recent article by the Law Society Gazette states that Sexual Harassment is rife in the profession but the tolerance or acceptance and expectation of this happening, or the consequence of for instance ‘reporting this to the SRA’ isn’t happening because of the backlash. Abuse of women is not being addressed internally or externally.
What is a Professional?
As highlighted in a recent the Women’s and Equalities committee meeting regarding ‘Sexism and Sexual Harassment’ (10:15am 6/11/17), Public Servants (and those in positions of public trust) should be setting standards of acceptable behaviour for society.
Professionals have ‘expectations of behaviour’ attached the the title. Keith Bartley, Chief Executive of the General Teaching Council, said:
“It is a well-established principle that individuals have a duty to uphold the reputation of their chosen profession, and this is backed by a substantial body of case law.”
Back in 2009 he stated:
“The GTC had heard only two cases of teachers’ misconduct outside school. In one, a teacher had encouraged unsafe sex on a website, and the other had appeared on a porn programme on TV. Both were reprimanded.”
Other Professions’ Codes of Conduct
The Codes of Conduct from other professions show the expected behaviour and responsibilities that come with holding this status. This includes being aware of your behaviour and conduct as a person in the community. The word propriety is used in the codes: ‘conformity to conventionally accepted standards of behaviour or morals’. With the inclusion of things like appropriate behaviour on Social Media, other professions are up to date with the modern day politics. Only a few months back the SRA announced that:
‘Specifically, we have warned that online comments posted in a personal capacity and which might be deemed offensive or inappropriate could be classed as misconduct if the poster can be identified as a solicitor.’
There are several other profession’s regulators that demand the same standards of their members in a professional and personal/private life capacity: Police, Doctors, Teachers, Surveyors and many more.
Honesty and Integrity are qualities a person ‘has’ not something they ‘do’ merely in their professional capacity.
A legal ‘doctors’ defence service’ website states that:
‘Members of the public expect medical doctors to be honest in both their public and private life. The public still holds doctors in high regard, with the majority of doctors being given due respect for their contributions to the welfare of society.’ The General Medical Council (GMC) – the regulator of doctors – will take action against those doctors who do not conduct themselves with the utmost probity, integrity, and honesty. Doctors who admit or are found guilty of dishonest conduct will almost certainly be found to have committed professional misconduct.
As members of a profession that are administrators of the law, solicitors should in essence be held more accountable for these expected qualities and behaviours yet the SRA as regulators do not seem able to recognise the detrimental effect that their lack of regulation and ‘standards of behaviour’ are having on society and public trust in the profession as a whole. Including the abuse of women.
Lawyers are held ‘in a position of trust’ by the wider public audience, not just consumers, and need to be so for confidence in them as a profession and administrators of justice. The legal profession cannot be seen to operate as an ‘elite club’ with no accountability and beyond public scrutiny. However, this is precisely the view that concern the public (my petition link is here) and the current SRA regime is eroding public confidence and integrity in the system.
The SRA are accountable to Parliament through the Law Society and, in order to ensure greater transparency and restore public confidence, it would be timely for Parliament to review and strengthen the SRA’s role in relation to broadening their functions, so that i) The SRA afford greater protection to the public by ensuring that complaints from third parties are taken seriously and investigated and ii) They revise the Code of Conduct to encompass standards in public life, similar to that of other professions.
Anyone that is interested in viewing the research findings can email me for further information.