Wading through the correspondence we’ve received from people who have been let down by our system of justice, we have not found a good word to be said, (yet), about the Solicitor’s Regulatory Authority (SRA).
The apparent efficacy of this body – or rather lack of it, means that most solicitors are pretty well free to break SRA rules without punishment. The evidence suggests that in the few instances that a complaint against a solicitor is upheld, the punishment is so inconsequential, that most solicitors will feel that the risk/reward ratio of breaching SRA is comfortably favourable.
Indeed some of the responses which people have received from complaints made to the SRA, could be the subject of a comedy series, except of course for the member of public, You will find them a selection of them below.
In the meantime let’s have a look at some figures and try to work out why so many people do not think that the SRA are doing the job they claim to be doing.
In 2017/2018 the SRA received 11,879 complaints of which it upheld 400. This means less than 3% of all complaints were taken seriously.
Of the 400, over half of the solicitors (223 of them to be precise) received no more than a letter of advice, just warning them that they had broken the rules and not to do it again. Sixteen were classified as ‘finding/finding and warning’, for more serious but one-off acts of misconduct. The finding/finding and warning can be taken into account in the outcome of any future investigation. 54 firms or individuals were ‘rebuked/remanded’, meaning an individual or a firm made a ‘moderately serious’ breach of SRA requirements and standards.
A mere 28 were fined because they committed a serious breach of SRA requirements or standards and where, ‘for example, the regulated person or firm benefited financially from the misconduct, and it is appropriate to remove or reduce their financial gain’. It seems that the biggest fine that the SRA can dish out is a staggering £2,000 (which incidentally goes into their own coffers).
Larger ‘fines’ are administered to firms who steal client money. But if the SRA is taking back stolen money, that’s hardly a fine is it?
Thirteen individuals or firms had conditions imposed on them. And 34 individuals or firms were issued a section 43 order, meaning that the SRA restricted non-lawyers, eg managers and other employees, from working in a law firm without their permission.
Looking at these statistics and taking into consideration the time, effort and cost of making a successful complaint, the conclusion is self evident: the only sensible advice you can give to anybody who is about to make a complaint is: don’t waste time and money doing it. You will get nothing or, at best, almost nothing back in return.
If you are one of the few people that succeeds in making a successful complaint, the solicitors in question will probably get no more than a letter of warning or at worse a slap on the wrist and a small fine.
In fact the SRA cannot dole out a serious punishment such as suspending a firm from operating or ordering a strike out. This is the job of the Tribunal, to which the SRA passed 117 firms or individuals in 2016/17. So one wonders if one shouldn’t go directly to the tribunal? By the way the 117 largely overstates the number of cases that the SRA passes to the tribunal, since one case usually involves a firm as well as individuals which all count as separate entities in the figure of 117.
So why is the SRA so ineffective?
First of all, even if this body looks as as though it’s there to protect the public from the misconduct of solicitors, the reality is that it’s there to protect the solicitors from the public. After all it’s a self regulatory body and is funded by the very people it claims to regulate: the solicitors themselves. Furthermore the bigger the firm of solicitors in terms of turnover and number of employees the bigger their financial contribution.
Is it possible that the biggest firms get the most protection? Of the complaints which are upheld, that one gets to hear about there do seem to be a disproportionate amount of minor ones directed at individuals or firms which evidently have no clout. Take for example the case of a young paralegal Hani Hussein last week who received the top £2,000 fine and a Section case of 43 order stating: “No solicitor shall employ or remunerate her in connection with his/her practice as a solicitor”, after it was discovered that she had lied about her legal qualifications.
Naming and shaming could be a powerful disincentive for solicitors not to breach SRA code, yet this is almost totally ineffective because the SRA ‘cherry pick’ the individual and and firms which appear on their website. Their policy states ‘Not all regulatory decisions are published. Only decisions made since early 2008 are published on this site.Most decisions remain on the site for three years’
Another reason that your case is unlikely to be upheld, if it against a firm of lawyers ‘with clout’, is that the SRA investigator will be up against a £500+/hour solicitor.
In a recent instance the SRA investigator who was investigating five breaches of the SRA code committed by a top 500 legal firm, had 22 years experience in the ‘Met’, but no legal qualifications. He was up against a senior partner earning £600/hour. Furthermore whilst the firm of solicitors was allowed to see all the plaintiff’s documents, the plaintiff was not allowed to see any of the solicitor’s documents, which suggests a rather unlevel playing field, when the plaintiff gets a simple reply that having looked at the solicitor’s responses the five different abuses have not been upheld. Even the abuses to which the solicitor did admit was not upheld by the SRA, on the basis that ‘whilst the solicitor breached the SRA code, the plaintiff did too. Is the SRA there to regulate solicitors and the public?