Laying Down the Law: SRA joins forces with #MeToo and takes action against offending lawyers

February 21, 2020

3 min read

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What's going on here?

More top London lawyers are being investigated by the Solicitors’ Regulation Authority (SRA) and appearing before the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) after allegations of harassment.

What does this mean?

The era of the #MeToo movement has encouraged more female employees to speak out against harassment in the workplace. Consequently, a key theme in the SRA’s most recent annual report has been a steep rise in sexual misconduct claims. The SRA heard around 70 such complaints between November 2017 and October 2018, up from a total of 30 in the period from 2012 to 2017.

A sharp rise in sexual misconduct claims brings into focus the regulatory scope of the SRA. Solicitors are self-regulated and agree to abide by the SRA’s Standards and Regulations. These regulations are underpinned by seven fundamental principles, two of which are central to sexual misconduct claims: “acting in a way that upholds public trust and confidence” and “acting with integrity”. According to SRA chief executive Paul Philip, sexual misconduct offends these principles and amounts to “an abuse of authority”, “a complete lack of integrity” and “bring[ing] the profession into disrepute.”

What's the big picture effect?

The rise in sexual misconduct claims will help shape regulation in the legal industry. In recent months, several of the cases by the SRA against City solicitors have made national news. The SRA has put to use a range of enforcement powers, such as letters of advice, rebukes, fines and suspensions. Referral to the SDT is reserved for the most serious cases, which must first pass an evidential and public interest test.

Self-evidently this is a pressing issue for all law firms. Firms that are implicated when their solicitors are tried before the SDT risk significant reputational damage. The commercial consequences of having an employee appear before the SRA include losing clients, difficulty in attracting new clients and a deterioration of employee relations. For these reasons, some firms have submitted to pressure to dismiss employees as soon as their alleged misconduct receives press coverage. For example, DLA Piper recently sacked a senior partner in Silicon Valley after an accuser published her allegations online. Similarly, a Reed Smith partner was dismissed in late 2017, just one month after a junior trainee reported allegations of sexual harassment.

Some law firms rely on non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) to prevent employees from speaking out. This is a contract between the employee and the firm which limits the employee’s ability to disclose details of allegations. They are commonly attached to a settlement agreement, whereby the employee waives any right to bring a claim at an Employment Tribunal in return for payment. Recently however, the SRA issued a warning to firms on using NDAs in such contexts, placing strict conditions on their use. Firms should not, for example, prevent employees from reporting misconduct or making protected disclosures, such as whistleblowing.

However firms decide to deal with sexual misconduct claims, it is clear that is in an extremely pressing issue in the legal industry currently. Law firms must act to uphold the principles of the SRA while considering its own reputation and the rights of the parties involved. The actions that firms and the SRA take now will inevitably influence how law firms are regulated in the future when matters of harassment are raised.

Report written by Arun Allen

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