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Wielding the big stick

All stick and no carrot? [1]

All stick and no carrot?

Posted by Neil Rose, Editor, Legal Futures

The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) has never been overly keen on the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) having its own powers to rebuke and fine solicitors – that should be the job of an independent tribunal, the message has been – and the SDT has been vociferous (particularly by its standards) in opposing SRA plans to increase the current £2,000 fine limit.

So it did not hold back when, for the first time, it was handed the opportunity to review an SRA decision to rebuke a solicitor. It was helpful in this regard that the SRA adjudication panel appeared to make a complete mess of its own review of the original adjudicator’s decision – to the extent, in fact, that it conducted a rehearing rather than the review its rules said it should have undertaken.

That was just the start of the problems, and the story on Legal Futures yesterday [2] detailed the many ways in which the panel got things wrong, according to the SDT.

Obviously you cannot read too much into a single decision, but the ruling left me feeling uneasy about the way such SRA panels operate. As laid out by the SDT, it smacked of an adjudication panel that did not act with anything like the rigour it should have done in assessing the evidence and considering the extent to which the SRA itself contributed to the issues that had arisen with Hafiz & Haque. Basically it read more like a rubber-stamping exercise.

The decision – and that of the adjudicator in the first place – also betrayed an uncompromising approach to rule breaches that we have been told is no longer the way the SRA operates. The evidence indicated that the solicitor involved was trying to comply but was confused by the information he received (when the SRA sent it to the right e-mail address, that is) – isn’t this exactly the kind of situation where the SRA is supposed to adopt ‘constructive engagement’ rather than just wield a big stick?

The solicitor was not blameless, but was his failure so egregious that he deserved to be one of the small number of the many who breached the rules around COLP and COFA nominations to face a formal sanction? It doesn’t appear so.

Adjudication panels operate with little formal oversight, which could lead to a certain laxness. Is the lack of appeals against panel decisions because they are so robust in their decision-making as to be unimpeachable or because solicitors simply haven’t the will or the resource to pursue their cases further? Either way, this ruling should focus minds at the SRA.