Decisions to suspend solicitors by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) or Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) should stay in the public domain for three years after they return to work, the Legal Services Consumer Panel (LSCP) has said.
It also argued that, given how rarely the SDT failed to certify a referral from the SRA on the grounds of no case to answer, the public should know immediately when solicitors were referred.
Responding to a consultation launched by the SRA in May on its publication policy for regulatory decisions, panel chair Sarah Chambers said its “real concern” was over suspensions or restriction orders.
The SRA is proposing that decisions to suspend be published for as long as the suspension lasts or for three years, whichever is the longer.
This meant that the moment the suspension ended, or the restrictions imposed on the solicitor’s PC, “there would be no publicly available record of what had occurred”.
Ms Chambers went on: “It therefore seems to us that there should be a three-year period of publication after the suspension or restriction has concluded, as in other cases.
“It is not only a relevant consideration most consumers would want to know about during the period of suspension or restriction, but also for some time afterwards.
“Any of these actions being taken against a solicitor appear serious enough to ensure that prospective consumers and all members of the public are aware of them.”
She also said that, given the “extraordinarily low rate of cases” where the SDT refused to certify a referral from the SRA as showing a case to answer – fewer than four in the past three years – “it does appear proportionate to publish this information at the time of referral”, rather than waiting for the case to be certified.
Although the LSCP generally agreed with the SRA’s approach to publishing regulatory decisions, an additional principle was needed outlining the SRA’s obligations to provide useful information to consumers of legal services.
“Being more specific with this obligation to prospective consumers and why the information is needed, rather than simply referring to a duty to be transparent with the public, will help inform how this information is communicated.”
Ms Chambers said that although publication in each case must be judged on its own facts, “open justice and transparency of regulatory information should be the default” and “extraordinary circumstances” should be required to counter it.
“It is the panel’s view that where there is a serious health or safety risk to someone, this should be considered and balanced against the presumption of publishing.”
Ms Chambers said that publishing “only at the very end of a process can introduce significant delays to when this information is publicly available”.
The LSCP would “prefer decisions to be reported as soon as information that would be valuable to prospective consumers is confirmed”
This approach “would lead to regulatory decisions being published as soon as possible”, the moment when it was confirmed that the complaints or allegations involved were “not baseless, frivolous or misleading”.
Ms Chambers said the full text of regulatory decisions should always be published, “along with shorter summaries of the pertinent facts”.
She added it seemed likely that consumers” would want to know about more serious breaches of compliant behaviour for longer periods of time”, suggesting it made sense to link the severity of the regulatory decision with the length of publication.