The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is unlikely to take action against solicitors convicted in exercising their right to protest where no significant harm has been caused, it said yesterday.
But it may act where public confidence in the profession has been damaged, the regulator explained in new guidance on its approach to convictions arising from matters of principle or social conscience.
It said it encouraged “strong and open debate in a democratic society” and recognised that solicitors and other regulated individuals or those interested in joining the solicitors’ profession would exercise those rights from time to time.
While the SRA would “not seek to interfere with an individual’s right to peaceful protest”, it had to consider cases which led to criminal convictions – but stressed that this would not automatically result in disciplinary action or admission to the roll being refused.
There were “a broad range of factors” that affected how seriously the SRA would view a conviction, one of which was recognising an individual’s right to protest and involve themselves in organised non-violent civil disobedience.
The guidance said: “Where a conviction arises as a result of someone taking what they consider to be principled action or participating in a peaceful protest and that conviction does not involve a significant risk of harm to the public and/or material risk to property, it is unlikely to result in us taking any regulatory action.
“It is also unlikely that such conviction would result in a refusal for admission or a practising certificate being granted as long as it is disclosed to us.”
However, factors that weighed in favour of taking action included the offence causing or risking harm to others or damage to property, undermining the rule of law or administration of justice, abusive conduct such as hate speech, and failure to co-operate with the legal process – for example, resisting arrest or breaching a court order.
The SRA gave two fictional examples of how the guidance could be applied. One involved a trainee solicitor convicted of the public order offence of obstructing a public highway after joining hundreds of others in blocking a major road in a protest organised by a charity raising awareness about climate change.
The trainee, who had no previous convictions, was conditionally discharged and ordered to pay costs of £150, and reported the conviction to the SRA the following day. In such a situation, the SRA would not take disciplinary action.
The other saw a solicitor at the same protest resisting arrest and being verbally abusive to the arresting police officer. They were ultimately convicted of public order offences of obstructing a public highway and resisting arrest and ordered to pay a fine of £750.
The solicitor did not report the conviction, with the SRA only finding out from the police and a member of the public who had seen a press report.
The police also advised that this was the solicitor’s third conviction for similar offences with a further matter under investigation – none of which had been reported to the SRA by the solicitor.
“When we investigated they showed no insight or acknowledgement as to the impact of such behaviour on public confidence or their regulatory obligations. Because of the failures to report and their approach to the police a decision was made to fine them £2,000.”