If a complaint about a solicitor is referred to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), it could lead to a disciplinary hearing and, in some cases, sanctions.
In the fourth of our of series of blogs on legal services for professionals, we will help you to understand what constitutes an offence, the process of sanctioning and the role of the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT), and provide clarity on the support available for you as a solicitor.
WHO ARE THE SRA?
The SRA are the regulatory body for solicitors in England and Wales.
After a complaint is received about a solicitor, the SRA will conduct their own investigation, and they can impose certain sanctions. In some cases, however, they do not make a final decision and refer the case to the SDT – a review body that is independent from the SRA. In this instance, the SRA become prosecutors for the matter in the tribunal.
WHAT SORT OF OFFENCES ARE CONSIDERED FOR TRIBUNAL HEARINGS?
Alleged breaches of the SRA Principles or Code of Conduct, and other rules and regulations applicable to solicitors and their firms, are considered by the SRA or SDT.
The SRA Principles are to
- uphold the rule of law and the proper administration of justice
- act with integrity
- not allow your independence to be compromised
- act in the best interests of each client
- provide a proper standard of service to your clients
- behave in a way that maintains the trust the public places in you and in the provision of legal services
- comply with your legal and regulatory obligations and deal with your regulators and ombudsmen in an open, timely and co-operative manner
- run your business or carry out your role in the business effectively and in accordance with proper governance and sound financial and risk management principles
- run your business or carry out your role in the business in a way that encourages equality of opportunity and respect for diversity
- protect client money and assets.
The Code of Conduct sets out both ‘outcomes’ and ‘indicative behaviours.’
The Outcomes are mandatory, such as only entering into fee agreements with your clients that are lawful, and suitable for the client’s needs and best interests.
The Indicative Behaviours specify the kind of behaviour that aligns with the Principles, and guides as to what may be seen as being contrary to them. They are not an exhaustive list, however.
Actions or behaviour seen to be in breach of the Principles or Code of Conduct can result in sanctions.
WHAT ARE THE SANCTIONS THAT CAN BE IMPOSED?
The sanctions that the SRA can impose, in rising order of seriousness, are as follows:
- Casework decision: when there is no issue of professional conduct or no evidence of misconduct.
- Letter of Advice: a letter is sent when there has (or may have) been minor or technical misconduct. The misconduct will generally have had little impact with a very low likelihood of repetition.
- Warning: often used for significant but one-off misconduct,
- Written rebuke : this is a statutory disciplinary sanction. The SRA will rebuke a regulated person when there has been significant misconduct, or a series of incidents which are cumulatively significant.
- Financial penalty: Used when the misconduct has caused, or had the potential to cause, substantial impact. Particularly relevant when the regulated person has made some gain, financial or otherwise, from the misconduct.
- Referral to the SDT: The SRA will refer the more serious cases, where misconduct has caused, or had the potential to cause high impact, to the SDT.
The SDT has the power to take the following course of actions as it sees necessary:
- Striking you off the Roll (and they can prohibit you from being restored to the Roll except by order of the Tribunal itself)
- Suspending you from practice indefinitely, or for a specified period
- Issuing a conditions of practice order – restricting what you can do and what role you can act in
- Ordering you to pay a penalty fine
- Excluding you from criminal legal aid work, either permanently or for a specified period
- Ordering you to pay costs, or a contribution towards costs, for the Tribunal proceeding
The most common outcome of a SDT hearing is to be struck off the Roll, then a fine, then a fixed term suspension.
*The Tribunal also decides applications by former solicitors for restoration to the Roll and by indefinitely suspended solicitors for determination of suspension.
IS IT POSSIBLE TO AVOID PUBLICITY OF A HEARING?
Hearings are usually in public but the tribunal can consent to a private hearing in exceptional cases.
WILL MY INSURANCE COVER LEGAL FEES?
If you find yourself in need of legal support, you should check the terms of your relevant policy. In any event, you will have a duty to inform your insurers of the SRA’s investigation.
You should be aware that some insurers will state in their terms that you must use one of their prescribed solicitors, however, the true position is that you do not have to go with their choice. The Insurance Companies (Legal Expenses Insurance) Regulations 1990 allow you to choose which solicitor will be appointed in respect of any proceedings conducted on your behalf.
HOW WE HELP
If you are subject to disciplinary action from the SRA or SDT, they will have explained their reason for doing so in a letter. We will review your case and advise you on your chances of success. We will explain the processes and advise you on the best way of proceeding, and set about gathering evidence to support your case.
At your hearing we will represent you and show how your case is supported by the evidence obtained.
For more information on all professional services matters, please contact Regan or Gemma by email to email@example.com, or call 0121 201 3765.