Two recent decisions by the High Court hinged on the understanding of the term ‘integrity’. The subsequent rulings could have a significant impact on future disciplinary proceedings against solicitors. But what does this mean for solicitors’ professional discipline and regulatory sectors more broadly?
ABOUT THE CASES
In two separate cases the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) brought charges against solicitors in the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal.
In the cases SRA v Wingate and Evans and SRA v Malins, each solicitor was alleged to have breached principles 2 and 6 of the Solicitors Regulation Authority Principles 2011.
The two principles in question state that solicitors must:
2) act with integrity;
6) behave in a way that maintains the trust the public places in you and in the provision of legal services;
In the first case (Wingate and Evans), the initial tribunal acquitted the two solicitors of all charges, but a judge allowed the SRA appeal, finding that the first solicitor had breached principles 2 and 6 and that the second solicitor had breached principle 6.
In the second case (Malins), the initial tribunal found that the solicitor had breached principle 2, but the judge allowed his appeal on the ground that a breach of principle 2 necessarily involved dishonesty, which had not been pleaded by the authority.
Both cases were brought to the High Court for appeal. The appeal of the first solicitor in the first case was dismissed; but the appeals of the second solicitor in the first case and the authority in the second case was allowed.
Crucially, the High Court agreed with tribunal’s interpretation of ‘integrity’ in first case, but not in the second – in which they had controversially gone so far as to say that dishonesty and a lack of integrity were synonymous.
WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?
These rulings, when taken together, force us to examine the definitions of ‘honesty’ and ‘integrity’. Both are central to the SRA Principles and any change to the status quo could have ramifications for a number of appeals.
Honesty is much easier to define. As noted by the High Court, it is ‘a basic moral quality which is expected of all members of society’. Dishonesty is considered to be an objective matter, one that is not that difficult to discern. This was clarified by the Supreme Court in the recent case of Ivey v Genting Casinos  UKSC 67.
However, ‘integrity’ is a much murkier area of language. It is a much more complex and subjective term than ‘honesty’ and as such is open to different interpretations. Indeed, the differing interpretations of ‘integrity’ by the tribunals in the two cases is at the heart of the issue.
The comments made by the High Court provide insight into how they consider integrity, particularly in professional codes of conduct.
The term “integrity” is a useful shorthand to express the higher standards which society expects from professional persons and which the professions expect from their own members. The underlying rationale is that the professions have a privileged and trusted role in society. In return they are required to live up to their own professional standards. That involves more than mere honesty. The duty to act with integrity applies not only to what professional persons say, but also to what they do.
The Court stressed that unrealistically high standards should be avoided. Nonetheless, it was significant that they saw integrity as being a duty to act ethically, not just lawfully. As such, it is much less black and white, and harder to define, than honesty.
WHAT HAPPENS NOW?
The comments are likely to have immediate implications for cases before tribunals where ‘integrity’ is central to the original sanctions.
The issue itself remains in the air as little practical guidance was given by the High Court, and each profession must still feels its way.
The most obvious implications are for appeals to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal, but it will be felt across other professional fields. Indeed, some refer directly to integrity in their code of conduct. Others refer to a ‘fit and proper person’ – a similarly subjective term that could come under scrutiny.
It is certainly one to keep a close eye on in coming months.
For more information on how we provide legal support for people in professional services, please contact Regan or Gemma by email to email@example.com, or call 0121 201 3765.
You can also catch up on our blog on legal services for professionals, in which we help you to understand what constitutes an offence, the process of sanctioning and the role of the SDT, and provide clarity on the support available for you as a solicitor.Image: Integrity by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images