Black lawyers reignite SRA race discrimination row

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By Legal Futures

26 January 2012

Townsend: significant strides have been made

Around 15 claims of race discrimination against the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) will be launched shortly, arguing that it treats black and minority ethnic (BME) solicitors less favourably than white counterparts, the Society of Black Lawyers (SBL) has claimed.

SBL co-chairman Peter Herbert told Legal Futures that the SRA is “an institution overdue for reform”, arguing that it has made no progress since the 2008 Ouseley review of disproportionate regulatory outcomes for BME solicitors.

The SRA’s statistics continue to show that BME solicitors are subject to a disproportionate number of regulatory actions than white solicitors, but it said last month that a series of internal audits over 18 months had found no evidence of discrimination in the way the SRA deals with complaints.

The SBL is holding a demonstration outside Central London County Court this morning “to highlight the plight of ethnic minority solicitors”, ahead of a hearing over one solicitor’s claim for discrimination. It says the SRA is trying to have the case struck out.

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An SBL statement said there is a belief among some BME solicitors “that despite [various] reports and efforts within the SRA to implement Lord Ouseley’s recommendations, the authority continues to engage in practices and decision making which amount to ‘racial profiling’.”

Mr Her

bert added: “We do not condone dishonest or incompetent solicitors but we do demand equal treatment. There appears to be a worrying lack of transparency about how decisions are made at the SRA. These allegations are serious and the SRA should address them instead of trying to sweep these issues under the carpet.”

He insisted that “paper policies are nothing” and that what counts is the reality of how the SRA continues to operate. While recognising that BME solicitors, by working at small law firms, are more likely to be subject to SRA action, he criticised the authority for being generally unwilling to take on large City firms.

SRA chief executive Antony Townsend responded: “Since March 2009, we have been working with BME stakeholder groups and an implementation group chaired by Lord Ouseley on a diversity strategy to address the criticisms and recommendations in Lord Ouseley’s report.

“While there is still work to do on ensuring the SRA’s regulatory work is proportionate, significant strides have been made. It’s obvious we still have work to do and we shall continue to address concerns raised, but we’re heading in the right direction.”

Mr Townsend pointed that that Lord Ouseley did not find any instances of discriminatory decisions and that his “cold case review” of 187 files did not reveal any evidence of inappropriate penalties being applied to breaches of conduct, practice or other requirements.

“We have published regular progress reports on our strategy, including further audits which have not found evidence of unfairness or discrimination. We will continue our work with stakeholder groups.”

Sundeep Bhatia, who represents BME solicitors on the Law Society council, told Legal Futures that he believed the SRA commissioned the Ouseley report “in good faith” and has since “done its best to engage with the profession”.

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