Law firms should be at the forefront of the fight against modern slavery, both in terms of their own impact as businesses and advising clients on meeting their human rights obligations, the Law Society has urged.
Meanwhile, at least one large law firm has plans to impose tough contractual conditions on its suppliers as part of an effort to root out possible exploitation of labour in its supply chain.
The new prime minister, Theresa May, has made combatting modern slavery in the UK a priority, describing the crime as “the great human rights issue of our time”.
She announced a review of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which requires large organisations, including law firms, to publish an annual slavery and human trafficking statement, beginning this year. In the Act’s first year, 289 modern slavery offenses were prosecuted.
Welcoming Ms May’s focus on the issue, the Law Society’s president, Robert Bourns, wrote in a blog that the solicitors’ profession should play an important role in driving the agenda.
He said: “Law societies across the world are instrumental in ensuring that law firms, solicitors and lawyers assess their own impact and effectively advise and educate clients about human rights in their supply chains and operations.
“For example, by having strict procurement rules which allow for the exclusion of a tender where there is information showing misconduct by a company, making sure any agency staff are treated fairly and paid properly and, importantly, ensuring that there is a clear culture in firms to treat everyone with dignity and respect.”
Meanwhile, a recent survey found fewer than one in 10 of FTSE 500 companies – among those with over £36m annual revenues who will have to publish a slavery and human trafficking statement within six months of their financial year – had so far published statements. The first tranche of companies obliged to publish the reports by the end of next month are those with a year-end of 31 March 2016.
The survey, by compliance and risk specialists VinciWorks, which painstakingly examined websites of each of the FTSE 500 companies for evidence of the statements, found six law firms had complied by June: DAC Beachcroft, Bevan Brittan, Clarke Wilmott, Freeths, TLT Solicitors – Mr Bourns’ firm – and Weightmans.
DAC Beachcroft’s was more elaborate than most. It explained that “our procurement process includes vetting every new supplier and carrying out a risk analysis based on the nature and value of the product or service”.
The firm said it was “currently reviewing our entire procurement process and will be introducing specific measures to ensure that our obligations under the Act are passed through our supply chain”. Measures would include “obtaining contractual warranties that no slavery is used anywhere in the supplier’s business”.
VinciWorks commented on the law firms’ obligations: “Despite a seemingly low risk of slavery, law firms are not exempt from the provision. The focus of the provision is the supply chain, and law firms must perform a careful review of their suppliers to determine that they are not inadvertently enabling exploitation.”